I’m a lover of music, and not just the latest releases. Classical music is often underrated in my personal opinion and composers and scores are up there on Spotify amongst my most-played tunes. In the summer I was lucky enough to see Ludovico Einaudi, and the music just blew me away.
Aside from Einaudi, however, I haven’t seen many live performances of ‘classical’ music. This is all the more astonishing when you consider the fact that I live very close to a number of venues which regularly host musicians and performances which might tickle my fancy!
Music on the Mind is composed by Harvey Brough (libretto by Justin Butcher), and brings together the works of minds which are – and were – simultaneously inspired and tortured. Performed by a team of talented musicians and professional singers, as well as the University of Southampton Voices and the Mind and Soul II Choir, a collection of texts and poems are used to celebrate the talents of creatives who have been affected by mental health issues, in order to raise awareness.
Mental health is a topic very close to my heart, so as soon as I heard about this project I was keen to see how the group might interpret it into music. I’m also an English graduate, poetry fan and keen reader, but my knowledge of mental health in poetry and literature is sadly rather limited. I was keen to be both entertained and educated by the performance.
The project itself had a sad beginning. In the programme, Justin Butcher explains that the project was sparked by the tragic loss of friends and loved ones. Music on the Mind was created to celebrate the works of mental health sufferers who contributed creatively to society, and to raise awareness and funds for the cause. In the words of Justin Butcher:
‘Maybe if we can start to recognise and celebrate the incredible contributions made in our history by countless inspired, brilliant women and men afflicted by anxiety, depression, psychosis or bipolar disorder, there might be less stigma attached to these conditions.’
I don’t know about you, but I think this a wonderful concept.
The evening was split into two halves. The first, a series seven different poems set to music, called ‘Saturnalia’, after Saturn, the Roman God of melancholy. Amongst these poems were Emily Dickinson’s Much Madness is Divinest Sense, Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, the anonymous 17th century folk song Tom o’Bedlam and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.
Not having picked up a programme for the first half – oh, how I wish I had! – I wasn’t able to read along with the choir, which I think would have made the poems slightly more powerful and easy to understand, particularly since I haven’t read any of the poems featured in this first half before. Once I read some of the pieces after hearing the music, I was able to understand the emotions even more, and it really added something to the performance.
Th range of instruments – from harp to voice, from bass to drum – gave each piece a quirky, slightly unusual sound which I think went perfectly with the theme. Each piece was varied, and some of the poems were performed in quite a discordant way. Instead of finding this completely unsettling, it left me feeling oddly relaxed and soothed.
My favourite of all of these first performances has to be Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song. The repetition of the line ‘I think I made you up inside my head’ was both beautiful and haunting, and it has stuck with me for days after the event.
I also particularly enjoyed Jon Clare’s I Am, with the emphasis on ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’ really standing out to me. The way that these parts were performed meant that the message well and truly got across to the audience.
The way that the poems were sung was very clever, and very well thought out. I will not pretend to be overly knowledgable about music, so forgive me – this isn’t the most technical review! But as an ‘everyman’ of sorts, I really enjoyed this section of the evening. I felt that at times the choir were less confident in some of the pieces than others, which was a shame – but as amateur, volunteer singers, I think they did a brilliant job with some really complex sections of music!
The second half for me was enhanced once I’d managed to get my hands on a programme. Entitled ‘Part II: An Unquiet Mind’, it was once again adapted by Justin Butcher from Kay Redfield Jamieson’s piece of the same title.
The set was clearly worked into sections, and each section’s content was reflected brilliantly by the music written to accompany it. The exuberance of Prelude: Mania-Lite versus the dirge-like Deathly sleep was brilliantly done. The lightness of Seduced by Mania had a perilous and sinister undertone, reflective of the mania that it portrays.
This second half was a rollercoaster of voices, sentiments and music. I was taken on a journey of euphoria, desperation, bewilderment and eventually, hopefulness. I felt completely swept up by the performance and by the powerful message it conveyed.
I feel as though the performers also came into their own in the second half too. The University of Southampton Voices and the Mind and Soul II Choir (formed by mental health workers, sufferers and volunteers) created eerie, powerful and emotional music, working well with the mezzo-soprano, Clara Sanabras, and baritone, Nicholas Garrett. The different voices worked well together.
I also feel that by having the choirs performing added something to the meaning behind the performance; a community, many of whom may suffer or know someone suffering from mental health issues. Perhaps it was also a representation of the many voices mental health can take on – the many voices in your head – the community surrounding you, or the ones who suffer alongside you. Using a group contrasted beautifully with the loneliness and isolation often associated with mental health problems.
I made notes on my programme throughout this second half as so much of the performance stood out to me, and I plan to revisit these poems in my own time to read them more carefully. I loved having the opportunity to look at the lyrics, and I discovered many which were extremely powerful, and spoke to me.
I left the Turner Sims music hall that night feeling passionate, inspired and fairly emotional. Harvey Brough, Justin Butcher, and all who contributed to the performance did a fantastic job at bringing a sensitive and misunderstood topic to the stage, with an innovative, inspiring and captivating performance. Music on the Mind was a really interesting and clever way to address the issue of mental health and to educate the audience on the matter.
With music being such a powerfully emotive tool, it makes for the perfect vessel to express, educate and share messages on mental wellbeing. It’s also the perfect universal language to express emotion and experience to all.
This performance has really inspired me and I will most certainly be reading more of the work featured in the piece. Whilst the event had a packed-out audience, I wish more people could have seen and heard the pieces performed in the evening.
Congratulations to all involved; it really was a wonderful – and very cleverly created – project, and one which will stay with me for a long time.
You can find out more about Music on the Mind on their website.
Did you attend the event? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!