In Carrion-Miles to Purgatory Part 1 I introduced the event that my husband and I attended on December 8. If you have not read that, you may want to go back and start there.
After the symposium portion of the evening ended, there were light refreshments in the lobby. I had a glass of pineapple infused water. We then headed to the concert hall. On the stage was an area rug with three arm chairs and end tables with flowers. Behind that, there were four chairs and four music stands with lights on top. On the wall at the back of the stage was a giant projection screen.
The second half of the evening began with Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD and Michael Hersch in a discussion led by James “Jimmy” Potash, MD, MPH. As you will recall, Jamison is the author of the book which brought this event together, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. Michael Hersch is the composer of the music we were about to hear.
Michael Hersch is a composer who has had his music performed in the US and abroad. He became known internationally at age 25, at which point he was awarded first prize in the Concorida American Composers Awards. As an introduction to the concert we were about to listen to, Hersch discussed how this particular concert can be difficult to hear. He said that you need to come at it with an open mind and that this music came to him in much the same way be believes Lowell’s poems came to him. Robert Lowell, Hersch shared, is someone that he feels a connection with.
Once the discussion came to an end, the stage was rearranged and the lights were dimmed. The FLUX Quartet, the musicians for the night, walked on stage. The FLUX Quartet has an impressive reputation and has played at places such as Carnegie’s Zankel Hall and the Kennedy Center.
The music began with the backdrop displaying a quote from Lowell’s work, “To hang the Furies by their itching ears,/And the green needles nail us to the wall.” The music was slightly jarring, but went perfectly with the video presentation behind the musicians.
The video was constructed and directed by James Matthew Daniel and included artwork from Michael Manzur and photographs from psychiatric wards in the 20th century. There were also photographs of closed and abandoned psychiatric hospitals.
It is difficult to describe music, especially for me, someone with no musical knowledge or skill. I can, however, share how the music made me feel. I was enraptured by the sounds and images. I felt as though the music knew my inner thoughts and feelings. The sounds described perfectly the fear I experience when I am well. The fear of my next major depressive episode. It also matched the chaos that goes through my head when I am unwell.
Throughout the concert, people were getting up and leaving. I kept thinking about how rude these people were, with the composer sitting right there. I also wondered why they did not appreciate what I felt was a masterpiece. My husband later expressed that he thinks they were fleeing, not just leaving.
After the show, as we were exiting the auditorium, I turned to my husband to express how much I had enjoyed the concert. He had a look of misery on his face. Once outside, I asked him what was going on, why didn’t he like it? He said that this was the only time his had felt physical pain upon hearing music. He said the images were horrifying as well.
I will admit, the images could be difficult to look at, but it spoke the truth of treatment in the early to mid-20th century. If those people had to live through that, I felt I could look at it. In fact, during the concert, I kept thinking that if I was born in a different time, that would have been my fate.
My husband and I discussed the concert a bit more, why he had such a negative reaction to it, while I felt comforted by it. We came to an interesting conclusion. While I felt that the music and video expressed my own lived feelings and experiences, my husband came to truly understood the pain of mental illness. He said he has lived with me through my lows, but he didn’t truly get the terrifying truth of it until he experienced that concert.
I would say that the range of emotional responses to the concert speaks well to the talent of the composer. I have never before felt emotion while listening to music. This music, while different than anything I had heard before, and admittedly slightly off putting at times, made me feel understood. The same music caused agony in my husband, and likely to those who left throughout the show.
I’ve heard it said that when you read a novel, the story is experienced through your current lived experiences, and therefore, at different times in your life, you can get very different things from the same novel. I imagine this is true for this concert as well. If I were to hear it in 5, 10, 20 years, would I take it the same way? What about my husband?
If you are interested in hearing the concert and seeing the video presentation, you are in luck, I found a previously preformed recording on Youtube. I really do encourage everyone to play the video below and see what your experience is. Please share your feelings in the comments.