Hearing Voices: Jocelyn Pook | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Hearing Voices: Jocelyn Pook
The British composer discusses her unsettling, intimate and deeply personal new song cycle
“I am always fascinated by how much is in a voice, by their textures and qualities,” says composer Jocelyn Pook. “They’re like aural photographs of a person and you recognise them instantly.” We are in her studio in north London and Pook flicks through audio-files in her computer to prove the point. Some of the voices she was chosen for their inherent musicality – voices on answerphones rise upwards as questions are asked and intervals are sounded for multi-syllabic words. Pook, an award-winning musician who often uses voices and vocal rhythms – real, sampled and digitally pitchshifted – in her compositions, is fascinated by the creative possibilities that the human voice affords.
But what happens when the voices prove untrustworthy? Hearing Voices, Pook’s extraordinarily intimate new song cycle, which receives its world premiere at the Southbank tomorrow night, tackles that question head on. Commissioned by the BBC Concert Orchestra, Hearing Voices is one of five works relating, loosely, to mental health and psychic productions, within the evening’s H7steria event and the programme works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Schoenberg and an arrangement of a song by the rock group Muse. Scored for orchestra, taped voices and singer Melanie Pappenheim, the mezzo soprano who is a fixture in Pook’s compositions, Hearing Voices is based around an aural sleight of hand: it makes audible the internalised voices that people keep to themselves. Pook’s song cycle is about madness and the experiences of five separate women with hearing voices, but beyond that, it’s specifically about feminine madness and about the arena in which madness is presented and constrained.
The hugely responsive music supports the stories themselves – not necessarily sweetly
What makes Hearing Voices so personal to the composer is that, out of the five real-life women in the song cycle speaking of their experiences of madness, four are known to Pook and two – her great-aunt Phyllis Williams and her mother, Mary Cecil Pook, who died last year – are close relatives. Mary, along with artists Bobby Baker (whom Pook has worked with several times in the past) and Julie McNamara are present in the forms of recorded interviews that Pook conducted with them. There is only one historical character – Agnes Richter, a German seamstress, who was in a state asylum for many years in the early 20th century. While there, Richter made a jacket from the rags of hospital uniforms and it was onto the jacket’s every available surface that she embroidered messages. “It’s covered with text, some of it decipherable, some of it not,” Pook says. While some words attributed to Richter in Hearing Voices are the product of dramaturge Emma Bernard, Pook uses many phrases that are Agnes’ own: "I plunge headlong into disaster” is one of these that Pook has set to music.
“The writing interested me greatly, it’s a real theme in mental illness,” Pook says. “I think it’s partly writing in protest and partly writing as the need to make some sense of what is happening to you.” The survival of the jacket is down to its inclusion in the collection of outsider art created by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn; and Pook first came across it in a groundbreaking book, Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness, by American academic Gail Hornstein. While Hornstein’s account of the jacket and its hidden meanings was certainly a powerful spur to the writing of Hearing Voices, Pook’s inspiration came from of her own family and great-aunt Phyllis, who was in an institution for 25 years, in particular.
"Phyllis came from a very conventional army family in the Channel Islands,” says Pook, handing me a photograph taken in the 1900s. It shows a young woman surrounded by a family of boys and men. She went to finishing school in Switzerland, moved to Italy between the wars and in the Thirties moved to London. It was there, in a small flat in Notting Hill Gate, that her breakdown began. Phyllis heard voices: at first they were benign. “I ask myself, is it the thought I hear or are they speaking out loud?” she wrote in her diaries, which Pook and her mother received after Phyllis’s death. “There seems to a regular company of people surrounding me all the time so I cannot complain of loneliness,” Phyllis recorded on 24 December 1934. Within days, the tenor of the voices has changed and the writings are becoming agitated. She is called an “accidental woman” and the voices are ordering her to starve herself to death. By 6 January 1935, Phyllis is writing about outcasts, lepers and her “separation from God”. The voices are so loud and incessant she has trouble recording them. Pook says: “I end it with Phyllis with her hands over her ears and singing a hymn to try to block the voices out.”
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