It is a curious experience to go to a concert with only a slight and vague idea of what to expect. As there are no videos nor records of Music on the Mind, this was most likely a shared emotion of the crowded Turner Sims’ audience last Friday (2nd December). What we found was a performance that was, in one word, shaking.
As Harvey Brough, the composer and conductor – as well as professor of music at the University of Southampton – confessed at the start of the performance, Music on the Mind is a project that tries to cast light upon the tabooed world of mental illnesses in general. It was originally born from personal experience, that of some of his close friends who in a short period of time committed suicide because of varied mental disorders. His music attempts to imagine what it is like to have a mental illness with its many ups and downs, and quite strange, unpleasant harmonies.
The first half of Music on the Mind consists of some musical adaptations of poems related to mental health from a wide range of authors, such as Pessoa and Sylvia Plath, and the second follows the same motto, but with a different structure. Adapted by Justin Butcher, it is based on a series of poems from Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. The intention is clear: if the music is supposed to transmit all the variations and obsessions of a person who suffers from a mental illness, the words should be in harmony with it.
It is very difficult, however, to define how those literary works are adapted for the music; despite not seeming very experimental, it is not orthodox at all. An example of this is the makeup of the band needed to perform it: choir, baritone, mezzo-soprano, piano, harp, cello, counter bass and drum, and also a ukulele. It would be impossible for me to conclude if the music was good or not, or even if I enjoyed it. Of course I appreciate the project, and also that part of the choir was formed by people of Southampton related in some way with mental illnesses. But overall, I don’t know if the music fits the theme nor the poems themselves. Poetry has a rhythm of its own, and the music did not follow that rhythm. In fact, it seemed as if the music had been composed and then a poem had been adapted to it.
These elements created a very disturbing atmosphere, but not because of the intended reasons. From a rational standpoint, maybe it did: its deeply strange, yet also simple tempo and the ascending melodies could be thought to represent a mental disorder. But when listening to it, the choir always seemed to be a step behind the band; the strange tempo, perhaps just a simple one but played unsuitably, and the soloists, Clara Sanabras and Nicholas Garret, apathetic and out of place. Although the performance attempted to address a very delicate matter, it was, in some ways, a bit naïve (which perhaps is the path to follow when talking about mental illnesses).
Music on the Mind is a project that should be praised for the reasons as to why it exists, but that when judged artistically, perhaps seems flawed and erratic. Maybe it is, or maybe it is not. It is curious to go to a concert without knowing what you are going to see, but it is even more strange to leave the concert without completely knowing what you saw.