One of the truly wretched things about mental illness is that it is very hard to describe what it’s like. Words aren’t enough – even good ones.
But what about music? If the strings in Psycho can make us quail and the warm orchestral resolutions in Cinema Paradiso can make us cry, is there music that can make us understand what depression and anxiety feel like?
Keaton Henson thinks so – and he’s going to try to prove it.
On 20 July, a string orchestra will perform the songwriter’s latest work, Six Lethargies, at the Barbican in London. Some audience members will be hooked up to finger sensors monitoring electrodermal activity and autonomic nervous reaction. The data produced will control the lighting system. The possibilities for feedback are almost endless.
“If I write about how it feels to me, will you feel it, too?” Henson asks. “If you do, then it proves it is not a mental health issue, it’s a physical health issue. It’s so physical that I can show it to you.”
Henson is a slight, restless man who, for all his tortured public persona and heroic battle with anxiety, is charming, wry and even perky at times. He spent months composing the work in his flat while feeling deeply unwell, elaborating dozens of fragments before chopping them together into six 10-minute pieces.
He also investigated the importance of music as a communication tool, meeting with cognitive neuroscientists such as Jessica Grahn to understand more about how music affects us.
Henson came to understand some peculiar things about this most ancient and universal of human instincts. “It turns out that a sad note is a sad note, whatever the culture,” he says. “A rhythm makes us feel at one – we dance around campfires or in clubs, our heart rates sync up. It has bonding power.
Henson says: “Harmony and melody is the emotional side. Everyone understands that speaking in a low way, in a monotone, with notes going down, means it’s unhappy,. What music can do is, it is a direct line to empathy.” Even the briefest fragment can access a back door to the brain, he says, bypassing reason, judgment and critical thought.
The 30-year-old Londoner discovered this at the few shows he used to play each year to support his new albums. For someone who says he finds buying a pint of milk in a supermarket a public torture, performing to 3,000 people was a particular kind of agony. Henson is the definition of a reluctant star.
As a coping mechanism, he fixated on the emotional charge that his spare paeans – think Jeff Buckley meets Nick Drake – and awkward stage persona would have on the audience. “I could write a song about a breakup and they just got it.” From there, it was but a small step to see if there were other things he could make his audience feel.
Henson has changed his approach to songcraft. For the third movement (subtitled Trauma in Chaos) of the Six Lethargies, he uses atonality and other devices such as Shepard tones – an aural hallucination that sounds like a constantly rising note – to suggest the wheels coming off. The fifth movement is called Depression – After the Collapse. It is written in G minor (has anything joyful ever been written in G minor?), a sombre evolution of 10-note piano chords building and subsiding, whole tone intervals resolving briefly before the next dissonance emerges.
Composing an orchestral work for someone else to play marks a departure for the singer-songwriter, and one he seems to be enjoying. Why, he muses, do we expect music creatives to be on-stage legends, too? “You don’t expect novelists to be master orators. By nature they are considered introverts. But we expect songwriters to perform.”
This week, he will look on as a string orchestra performs the work and polymath Brendan Walker conducts the biofeedback experiment. (Subsequent performances will take place in Sydney and, hopefully, the US.)
Walker, who describes himself as a “thrill engineer” and digital artist, will arrange for several audience members to be monitored. The more anxious people get, the more the lighting will feed that back at them.
“We are going to find out a lot, not just about the pieces but also about how people experience them,” says Walker. Often employed by amusement parks to help design rollercoasters, he has a long track record of trying to quantify human experience: how thrill and emotion can be measured by heart rate, pupil dilation, the opening of the pores on the fingers. The upshot, Walker says, will be a numerical analysis of the audience’s emotional trajectory through the evening.
Don’t let that put you off. Henson is adamant that his project puts art first and experiment second. “It’s a night out – people have paid money for it,” he says. “I want them to be left with the feeling they have after watching a moving film. I don’t want them saying, ‘God, I feel awful.’”