04 Dec 2012
“Tending towards extreme emotion” is a dictionary definition of hysteria, and right now hysteria is in fashion in the arts.
.....Up to this point, the evening’s aspirations towards lip-smacking relish in horror seemed half-hearted at best, and they fell away completely with Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing Voices. Made in collaboration with director Emma Bernard, it was an exploration of female madness, based on the memoirs of sufferers incarcerated in asylums, including the composer’s own great-aunt Phyllis.
The words themselves, describing the torments of hearing “voices in the head” and the ghastliness of incarceration, were already heartbreaking, and Pook wisely provided a minimal musical dressing. Each episode was based on just two gently rocking harmonies, animated with Glass-like arpeggios, and little melodic tags which mirrored the voices on the archive recordings in a way clearly indebted to Steve Reich.
Phyllis’s words were given to mezzo-soprano Melanie Pappenheim, who rendered them in a performance of part-singing, part-speech that was a marvel of quiet and far-from-hysterical intensity. Truly it was beyond praise. To follow this with Patrick Nunn’s derivative arrangement of Muse’s hit single Hysteria was as crass as telling a joke after a funeral.