Am I “Hearing Voices?”: A Review of Jocelyn Pook’s Music

What do you get when you mix Massive Attack, classical training, and post-modernism? Well that’s simple — you get Jocelyn Pook, the British composer most famous for composing “Masked Ball,” which took center stage in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.

Pook studied classical viola at the renowned Guildhall School for Music and Dance, graduating in 1983, and proceeded to embark on the sort of career that every composer dreams of. She has collaborated with some huge names in the music world, such as Massive Attack and Laurie Anderson, and has written original music for Electra Strings (now Brilliant Strings, a neo-classical string quartet), and in a very successful venture, the hugely famous King Singers — and when you consider the breadth of these collaborations, it isn’t surprising that she has gained somewhat of a cult following.

Many are introduced to Jocelyn Pook through “Masked Ball,” the creepy piece from her album Flood which features liturgical text read backwards in Romanian. Kubrick is certainly known for his inescapable attention to detail, and the inclusion of this piece makes perfect sense in the context of the plot. Listen to “Masked Ball” below, but make sure you aren’t alone in the house — I also wouldn’t recommend it if you have seen a movie involving demonic possession recently. I only listen to this piece in the bright light of day, surrounded by unsuspecting cafe patrons.

What is unfortunate is how many only know her through this piece of music, and not through the myriad of other pieces that are diverse in nature, but incredibly effective. One such under-reported project is Pook’s 2012 project, “Hearing Voices,” which was inspired by a jacket at Heidelberg Psychiatric Hospital, embroidered with phrases and text by Agnes Richter — a woman imprisoned in a mental institution in the late 18th century. The text itself is all-encompassing and very familiar to anyone who has ever suffered a nervous breakdown or a mental illness, but accompanied by Pook’s music, the work comes alive and swallows you whole. She took on the project with her aunt in mind, a quirky and clever woman who was locked away in the 1930s for 25 years. In an interview with the Guardian, Pook explains how her aunt was, in effect, tortured by the now-defunct process of deep-insulin shock therapy, a process where the patient is injected with enough insulin to induce a coma and nearly die, only to be brought back to consciousness to suffer the treatment all over again. Have a listen to a snippet from “Hearing Voices,” below.

The music grows more and more disjunct and frantic, but without being off-putting. The part I find most striking is at 23:05, where she is explaining her hallucinations, which is a scarily accurate depiction of what having a hallucination is like; auditory hallucinations are the most common, and typically include mumbling or hissing. That is followed up by the text, “…and it’s like I’m delusional, as if I’m hallucinating, losing my grip!” Pook manages to succinctly capture the essence of mental illness without romanticizing it, which is rare. Many movies depicting mental illness, like Silver Linings Playbook or As Good as it Gets, to name just two of many, tend to romanticize mental illness into some loveable quirks that can be overcome with a kiss, like Sleeping Beauty being awoken from a nightmare. In reality, mental illness can be debilitating and put quite a strain on any relationship, romantic or not. Many people who are lucky enough to not suffer from mental illness cannot handle the pressure or complications of a relationship with a loved one who suffers from mental illness — these relationships take real work and effort, many times coupled with medication and therapy.

This work is my favourite of Pook’s, though she also has three studio albums: Deluge, Flood, and Untold Things, the last of which was re-released in 2013 with additional tracks. She has also composed the music for many films and documentaries, including The Gangs of New York and Brick Lane. To me, the skill with which the text of Agnes Richter’s embroidered jacket is set proves Pook’s merit as a composer, and the sensitivity of the portrayal of mental illness is something which has been disappointingly absent from media. I hope that this production will get an extended run soon, as I’m sure many people would love an opportunity to see it live!

[Note: this was originally posted on Musically Notable, where I write about old music, new music, and everything in between.]

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