Hearing Voices uses the words of artists Bobby Baker and Julie McNamara, Jocelyn's relatives Phyllis Williams and Mary Pook, and the seamstress Agnes Richter, inmate in a German asylum in the 1890s, who covered her straightjacket with densely embroidered text.
In the Prinzhorn collection at Heidelberg psychiatric university hospital is a jacket that was made, and worn, by a seamstress, Agnes Richter, who in the late 18th century was an inmate in a Germany mental institution. Agnes had created a beautifully tailored jacket from ripped up hospital uniforms, and covered every inch of it with embroidered writing. Although largely indecipherable, a few works and phrases have now been decoded.
I came across this remarkable artefact in Gail Hornstein's book 'Agnes's Jacket - A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness'. Hornstein, quite unusually for someone working in this field, is interested in patients telling their own stories. her book forms part of an increasingly large body of work that can be characterised as protest literature in that it records a sense of injustice at the treatment and the lack of understand that these people have endured. It is also a document that tries to make sense of what happens to them when they are not getting the support from those who are supposed to be helping them.
I have used some of the phrases deciphered from Agnes's jacket in my new dramatised song cycle called Hearing Voices, for mezzo soprano, recorded voices and orchestra. But the project started much closer to home with the story of my great aunt Phyllis, who was in an institution for 25 years. There have been three generations of mental illness in my family, which has greatly affected my own life. My sister died as a result of her illness and my mother also suffered a breakdown. When Phyllis died she left her trunk of belongings to my mum, and in that trunk we discovered a series of writings that Phyllis had produced in an attempt to make of what was happening to her.
The writing is sometimes wonderfully poetic and often whimsical. My mother had a huge sense of outrage about what had happened to Phyllis. She was a very capable woman, and my mum suspected that she was practically running the hospital by the end. But she was eccentric and self-deprecatory, and was always slightly ridiculed in a very conventional army family. Humorous and absent-minded, she dressed untidily, always in mauve, wearing hats like tea cosies to cover her unruly hair, and when she became ill in the 1930s she probably did need help as she was becoming increasingly isolated.
Her jottings about that time make up an extraordinary document. She recorded what the voices were saying, and if you know the details of her life, a lot of it makes a weird kind of sense. After a year or two she was getting better and should have been released, but the family kept her in the asylum and her poems from this period reveal the great sadness she felt about incarceration.
Phyllis was my mother's godmother and her favourite aunt. The bond between them was made stronger by my mother's own mental health problems. Her breakdown in the 1950s was regarded by her family as a terrible embarrassment and disgrace. My mother, Mary Pook, went on not only to preserve Phyllis's writings, but to write a novel of her own, 'In Two Minds', under the pseudonym Mary Cecil, about her illness and the medical response to it. Mary was subjected to the now-abandoned deep insulin shock therapy. She was injected with large doses of insulin, which induce a coma and horrific sensation of nearly dying. It was a 30-day course and she would come out of one treatment and then spend the rest of the day dreading the next. I learned from Gail Hornstein's book that the dancer Nijinsky had more than 200 of these treatments, which ultimately ruined him.
Working on this piece I realised that the notion of "hearing voices" naturally lends itself to musical ideas and exploration. I have collaborated with the director Emma Bernard to create a text from the testimonies of Agnes, of my mother and great aunt, as well as the artists Bobby Baker and Julie McNamara, who have both suffered mental health problems and used their experiences in their work. I also work with the mezzo soprano Melanie Pappenheim exploring unusual utterances and uses for the voice. Melanie works not only with the BBC Concert Orchestra to sing Phyllis and Agnes's words, but also with recorded fragments of Bobby, Julia and my mother.
The five women represent five different generations, but they are linked by more than just their mental health histories. They all have a strong creative presence in their lives. As a society we value the unusual insights into our world provided by creative people, but having a heightened sensitivity to the world around can be very difficult to live with.
I wanted this idea to be reflected in the music and performance, in a way that feels true to our experiences and observations. So the performance is not a load of crazy grimacing and shrieking, but deals with the more private moments of pain. Phyllis's piece is the most agitated section of the song cycle, as she becomes increasingly confused and overwhelmed by the voices she hears, but as the piece has been informed by things that have come up in the testimonies, there have been some unexpected elements. One piece is about seeing the funny side, and using humour as a kind of survival mechanism that Bobby Baker excels in even in the bleakest of moments. This particular piece is driven by recordings of women's giggles and the laughter tunes that I've also notated.
This isn't a work specifically written to change people's minds or to better inform them of mental health issues. It is a piece of music and performance. But I realise the fact that I have taken this as a subject matter is, in a sense, political, and if it prompts a wider awareness of mental illness, then so much the better. (Jocelyn Pook, The Guardian)
Pook knows what she is talking about - three generations of women in her family have suffered, both with mental illness and the treatment they received or failed to receive. The result has been 'Hearing Voices', a dramatised song cycle in seven parts for mezzo-soprano Melanie Pappenheim, the BBC Concert Orchestra and recorded voices that incorporates the testimonies of five women across different generations who have been diagnosed with mental illness. It explores the confusion and taboo surrounding madness through the rich variety of language used to describe it, from the medical to the colloquial and euphemistic. (Time Out)
Listening to the voice of Jocelyn Pook's mother, recorded before she died last year, you could be forgiven for wondering if to laugh or cry. "A sane person would have been driven mad, but as we were already mad we couldn't get any madder, so we had to get sane instead." The words, spoken after Mary Pook recovered from mental illness, have been incorporated into Hearing Voices, Pook's dramatised song-cycle on the theme of mental breakdown.
The piece (...) draws on the testimony of several women who suffered from the same illness. They include a German seamstress, Agnes Richter, who stitched a cryptic autobiographical text into the jacket she created from her institutional uniform in a asylum a century ago. Among her few decipherable words are "I plunge headlong into disaster..."
Morbid? Paradoxically, what Pook discovered in most of her case-studies was a sense of humour - the idea that laughter was the only thing that made life bearable. "It's a way of coping with these awful things," says Pook, referring to the large doses of insulin that, until quite recently, were administered to mentally ill patients to put them into a daily coma. Seated in front of a computer in her agreeably disorganised north London studio, Pook plays me a tape of her mother imitating the laughter of madness - a sound that mutates into music in Hearing Voices, where the orchestra picks up the "tune" of the laughter. (Andrew Clark, Financial Times)
"I always wanted to do something with [Phyllis'] writings," recalls Pook. "They're an extraordinary document of somebody trying to make sense of what's happening to them and really grappling with it very intelligently and also very poetically. There's a lot of humour in it as well."
Phyllis was confined to an asylum in the late 1930s, aged 50. Her writings include letters from her finishing school in Switzerland and her time living in Italy. She was, says Pook, like one of the ladies in the film 'Tea with Mussolini', going to live in Italy in the 1920s and returning before the Second World War.
Phyllis then suffered a breakdown, which is detailed in her diaries and notebooks. Her condition manifested itself in hearing voices, which she attributed to spiritual phenomena. In her writings, Phyllis describes what the voices are saying to her. "Sometimes it's all very surreal," says Pook. "She writes what they're saying and then tries to analyse it."
At times, the voices can be benign, even elfish. But, adds Pook, the voices gradually start to drive Phyllis mad. "It's terribly sad," she says.
"What's also so sad is the loneliness," says Pook. "[Phyllis] became increasingly isolated as people who are mentally ill often do and that has a terrible snowball effect."
Some of that isolation was described in Phyllis' outline of the so-called "rest home" where she was confined: "What a disillusionment! A so-called rest home with a romantic name. I discovered the first day that it was a lunatic asylum pure and simple. The first impression was ghastly: thrust into a bad ward called The Infirmary - 'infirm' all right! Both the unfortunate patients and those in charge, the latter for their infirmity of character, tactlessness and rudeness."
Phyllis had never married and was, says Pook, regarded as something of an eccentric before she became ill. Having been admitted to the institution, she spent the rest of her days there, dying aged 75 in 1964.
"Women had a rough deal if they didn't fit into certain categories, if they didn't happen to get married," she adds. "We're so lucky to be women in our age."
Phyllis' writings were, says Pook, a "lovely place to start" when it came to composing 'Hearing Voices'. (Rachel Cooper - The Telegraph)
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