November 23, 2012 7:23 pm

Madness in the method

Jocelyn Pook is a composer whose new song-cycle takes on tough themes such as mental illness and breakdown
Composer Jocelyn Pook at home, in front of one of her husband's paintings©Victoria Birkenshaw

Composer Jocelyn Pook at home, in front of one of her husband's paintings

Listening to the voice of Jocelyn Pook’s mother, recorded before she died last year, you could be forgiven for wondering whether to laugh or cry. “A sane person would have been driven mad, but as we were already mad we couldn’t get any madder, so we had to get sane instead.” The words, spoken after Mary Pook recovered from mental illness, have been incorporated into Hearing Voices, Pook’s dramatised song-cycle on the theme of mental breakdown.

The piece, to be premiered on Monday at London’s Southbank Centre, draws on the testimony of several women who suffered from the same illness. They include a German seamstress, Agnes Richter, who stitched a cryptic autobiographical text into the jacket she created from her institutional uniform in an asylum a century ago. Among her few decipherable words are “I plunge headlong into disaster … ”

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Morbid? Paradoxically, what Pook discovered in most of her case-studies was a sense of humour – the idea that laughter was the only thing that made life bearable. “It’s a way of coping with these awful things,” says Pook, referring to the large doses of insulin that, until quite recently, were administered to mentally ill patients to put them into a daily coma. Seated in front of a computer in her agreeably disorganised north London studio, Pook plays me a tape of her mother imitating the laughter of madness – a sound that mutates into music in Hearing Voices, where the orchestra picks up the “tune” of the laughter.

The project typifies the uncategorisable world of Pook’s music: she draws inspiration from classical, world, ethnic and eastern traditions to produce a heady mix of electronic, live and “found” sounds. You get a flavour of it on a new CD of her soundtrack for DESH, Akram Khan’s award-winning contemporary dance project. The score, fusing Bangladeshi folksong, street noise, soulful-sentimental mood music and a trance-like “Hallelujah”, is shortlisted for the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors awards, the winners of which will be announced on Monday. The recording is a product of Pook Music, the publishing company she has set up to control the dissemination of her music and promote experimental work that big record companies refuse to take on.

Given the increasingly cross-disciplinary/collaborative mood of contemporary culture, Pook, 52, has hit her stride at the right time. Born in Birmingham and trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she did a postgraduate course in orchestral studies and early music, but spent most of her early career as a session musician, playing viola for pop bands. In the late 1980s her quartet, Electra Strings, worked as a backing group on the BBC television programme Top of the Pops. “What was lovely was the variety – even Meatloaf was fun,” she recalls with a wry smile.

She also played in a band that specialised in Balkan music – a clue to the Middle Eastern flavour of much of her work. But she says her biggest influences are Bach, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In her studio, you can’t help noticing the LP box of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on the staircase and a score of Beethoven’s piano music next to an old mixing desk, a relic of her pre-computer days. “Yes, I did start off [composing] with paper and piano,” she says.

She first wrote music as a teenager and then, after college, “started off with little things here and there. The more I did, the more confident I became.” She ascribes her success to two lucky breaks. A track she had contributed to someone else’s album was picked up for an advertisement, giving her enough funds to release an album of her own, Deluge (1997). It was heard by film director Stanley Kubrik while he was scouting for someone to write the soundtrack for Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Pook got the job.

Was it a bruising experience to find her music chopped up and moved around like surplus celluloid?

“Working collaboratively comes second-nature to me,” she says. “I had already done a lot of soundtrack work for Lloyd Newson’s DV8 and other dance and theatre companies, and that makes you flexible. Some composers find it tough being told to cut or change, but you have to enter into the spirit of the director’s vision. There’s flexibility on both sides – Kubrik could see how to work with the music and dance with it.”

Pook finds, nevertheless, that she is “more and more nourished by projects where I am in the driving seat.” One such was Ingerland (2010), commissioned by the Royal Opera’s contemporary producing arm. Another is Hearing Voices, the latest of many collaborations with mezzo Melanie Pappenheim.

One of the most daring techniques she and Pappenheim have developed – though not for Hearing Voices – is “reverse singing”. A piece of vocal music is recorded and then, at the flick of a computer switch, the tape is played backwards, producing an entirely new piece which the singer learns phonetically before vocalising it “live”.

“It’s two compositions for the sound of one,” jokes Pook, before adding that “it produces an atmosphere all of its own. A lot of listeners don’t recognise it as reverse singing, because it has a plainchanty, intoned quality. Usually it’s just part of a piece – I put it in a larger context, mixing the two. I might occasionally compose something with the intention of reversing it, in order to get the sort of melody I want, but usually it’s chanced upon – “how would that sound backwards?” What I like about it is its otherworldliness.”

Pook admits her music lacks the intellectual rigour of classical tradition. “I can understand why it sometimes sounds like a melting pot, but I’m not ashamed of writing mood pieces or working intuitively. I arrive at things carefully, with my own kind of rigour.”

Hearing Voices is the first concert piece she has written – an odd situation, given that most composers see live music as their main outlet, with electronic sound-manipulation as an optional extra. Pook prefers not to acknowledge the distinction, arguing that musical categorisations have not kept up with the breaking of barriers in the contemporary world. “Even though most of my pieces have an electronic element, I never think of myself as an electronic composer. Now that I’m writing for conventional symphony orchestra for the first time, I find it extremely exciting.”

Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing Voices is part of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s H7STERIA programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on December 3. www.jocelynpook.com

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