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Paul O’Connor was at Tallaght Hospital recently to witness the world premiere of Irish composer Ian Wilson’s musical take on stoke.
As the writer Rachel Cusk has put it, hospital is “a place of steel, a place where things happen, where event is irresistible” and so it is not an ideal setting for classical music performances.The functional furniture, the shinyobjets de médecine around about and the surrounding drama are in sharp contrast to the mellow hues of concert halls and the glamorous swirls of musical instruments. And yet the Day Hospital of the Age-Related Healthcare Unit of the Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Tallaght, recently played host to the world premiere of a brand new work for string quartet and soprano singer by the celebrated Irish composer Ian Wilson.
Through Arts Council funding, and co-ordinated by the Director of Arts and Health at the hospital, Hilary Moss, Wilson has recently completed 10 weeks in residence at the Hospital and has composed a sequence of songs (with one instrumental piece) about the experience of stroke from different perspectives.
It is a risky and witty juxtaposition of newly-composed songs based on the words of people Ian met in the unit, with masterful arrangements of classic Doris Day hits.
In the first piece, Water, the words of a stroke patient are set to a gently avant garde stream of music. The libretto goes, “When I was at the hospital I was very scared, I was crying a lot because I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling… Sometimes I could say ‘water’, and sometimes I could point to water, and other times I just couldn’t think of the word.”
Soon the music shifts into a swirling, plucky arrangement of Fly Me to the Moon: “In other words, hold my hand. In other words, darling kiss me.”
Four members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra and sop-rano Deirdre Moynihan were charged with bringing the work to life in the unit lounge for a small audience of patients, staff and guests. Doctors in white coats, patients in gowns, nurses in uniform, patients with walking frames or in wheelchairs – you could tell that everyone had ‘stolen away’ briefly from where they were really meant to be to enter this other world.
It is bringing that rarefied yet ‘normal’ world of serious music to this clinical setting that is so important to the likes of Hilary Moss and Prof Desmond O’Neill.
Not only does it offer, briefly, something special to the patients and staff, it also normalises the hospital environment in some small way too; and considering how many people spend considerable time in these institutions, why shouldn’t the full range of human activities of the world be conducted here?
In a way, Wilson achieves something similar in the musical juxtaposition: by incorporating the everyday words of patients and medical staff into the composition, he lifts their experiences into the realm of art, and then by putting the famous lyrics into the mouths of their characters in the music, he bridges the gap between their world and ours, normalising their perspective through familiar sentiments.
Another patient/character declares: “The only thing I can remember is feeling terrible, terrible, terrible tired… After that I could see double vision all the time, the time, the time. That’s how slight it was… Close your eyes, rest your head on my shoulder and sleep, close your eyes and I will close mine… Oh! This is divine… Close your eyes, when you open them dear, I’ll be here by your side.”
Wilson explained beforehand that of course Doris Day was perfect in terms of the average age of many stroke sufferers, but he indicated that there was also more to the choice than that. Accessibility is one thing, and the hit songs make that a sure thing, but it is the way the original material and the classics work off one another that provides the meaning in this composition.
Many of the Day songs, while delightfully playful and fun and positive, have a slightly poignant feel to them, a pathos that is heightened by the call of another era that one hears in the songs: “In other words, please be true”; “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be”; “Bewitched, bothered and bewildered”.
Old-fashioned words from a bygone era when jazz was gentle enough to be mainstream.
In that poignancy combined with art you get what is called ‘sublime pathos’: a sense of how human freedom can triumph in the struggle against suffering, and this may well be what we experience in this song cycle.
Another song, Carry it with You, is a setting of the words of one of the doctors: “I think people are looking for empathy and you cannot empathise with people without feeling what they are feeling. Of course, you can’t get over-involved or else you couldn’t make any decisions at all. You’d just be swamped. I don’t think we can do that… Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera.”
And while you are sitting there, listening to these unusual bedfellows, you notice also that the life of the hospital carries on, has to carry on, while the music unfolds: staff come and go; beeps go off; smells of food being prepared fill the air; medics and patients go by with barely time to notice that a powerful work of art is in full swing through those open doors. But their work, suffering and lives have been noticed in Wilson’s art, and are transformed every time that work is listened to.
A public performance of Ian Wilson’s piece of music has been scheduled for early 2011.