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Perspectives

Keaton Henson's Six Lethargies

wednesday 17th April 2019

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Keaton Henson

if I write how it feels to me, will it make you feel the same?

Performed by string orchestra led by Crash Ensemble

The Irish premiere of Henson’s new piece performed by string orchestra led by Crash Ensemble, exploring themes of mental illness, trauma and empathy.

Six Lethargies is the culmination of over three years of work from the musician, artist and composer.

Composed around, and from within, issues of mental illness and human emotion, the piece aims to express and explain the feelings of anxiety and depression through six connected movements for string orchestra. .

Known for his inability to perform live due to anxiety, through Six Lethargies, Keaton hands his story over to the orchestra. Not performing himself, he is allowing them to be his voice, as well as providing human connection and empathetic insight, all the while asking the audience ‘if I write how it feels to me, will it make you feel the same?’

The composer Keaton Henson will be attending the performance.

Six Lethargies is a co-commission by The Barbican Centre, London; National Concert Hall, Dublin and Vivid, Sydney.

Presented by NCH

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Six Lethargies began, in a way, as a logical next step for composer Keaton Henson; an artist who primarily deals with the introspective and is known for conveying, sometimes uncomfortably, honest feelings and emotions.
 
As an artist, he not only deals in these themes but has also wrestled with the dilemma of being a professional musician, whose emotional nature and struggles with mental illness have restricted his ability to do a lot of the activities being a performing artist demands, primarily performing live.

Performing on stage was always at the very extreme end of Keaton’s own personal fears. This fact became known, in spite of his lack of interviews or public appearances, to his increasingly loyal and ardent fan-base; a group of whom a large section recognised and related to these very feelings and struggles, encouraging a community and bond that made people feel ok discussing emotions, but where they often boiled high.

As such, when Keaton was finally able to make it on stage, the atmosphere that greeted him was not the usual restless audience of people on a night out, but a silent and eerily understanding group, no matter how large it got to be.

 For Keaton this meant walking out onto a stage and being met by both silence, tension and ultimately, often an overwhelming amount of emotion. From this vantage point, he struggled to grapple with these elements combined, but, he also found comfort and intrigue in this shared emotional experience, marvelling at the idea that someone could set their pain to music, and then look out to see that same emotion being reflected back in the eyes of 3000 strangers.
 
Eventually, living between hotel rooms, flights and these intense and overwhelming experiences, Keaton had to step away from performing. Suffering from chronic forms of his existing anxiety, he ended up deciding to write something for someone else to play on his behalf; an orchestral work that would not only take his place, but explain his absence.

This was the beginning of nearly three years of work, ultimately resulting in Six Lethargies, a series of six works for string orchestra, explaining and conveying the stages of clinical anxiety and depression.
 
As Keaton began work, mapping out his own experience and how he personally perceived these stages, it became more and more apparent that the very idea of emotion and music was one that it was important for him to explore. Also that he was interested in how far music can actually go to not only make us feel, but feel what its writer does.

This led to lots of reading, several conversations with science writers, and a trip to Canada; meeting with cognitive neuroscientist studying music Dr. Jessica Grahn, as well as Professor of Music Theory Jonathan Gregory De Souza. Opening the door to the science of music’s powerful links with emotion, led down many roads and showed Keaton the essential nature of music as a tool for communication. He also studied the many varied tools within composition that are, and can be used to cause certain emotional reactions; from harmonic dissonances to subtle variations in dynamics, timbre, and tempo.

This all served to form a broad picture of the landscape of music and empathy, a deeper understanding of how music affects us and a renewed interest in psychology as it relates to creativity.

But he decided that in terms of composition, all this knowledge aside, the best approach in the end to writing the piece would be to do as he always had, and compose from a place of the deepest introspection he could manage, and just write what he felt and experienced. This, Keaton decided, would be the best way to answer the core question of the piece; “If I write what I feel, will you feel it too?”
 
 As an instinctive songwriter with no formal training, and unable to read or write music, this process was also one of experimentation and unconventional techniques.

Keaton’s work, both orchestral and soloistic, have always been based on process and feel. Mostly built from either piano or guitar as a starting point, but sometimes building layers of his voice to create complex but still impulsive parts.

With Six Lethargies the process begun with physical drawings. Keaton would sketch the marks and patterns that best represented his feelings in each stage, and could then re-arrange them to form the rough shape of the entire piece. These drawings then served as visual references for each movement, which were then built up from many piano parts, layered, and similarly arranged and rearranged. This process went on for over one hundred ideas for movements, of which six were eventually landed upon, finalised and orchestrated by Keaton’s long time orchestrator Ben Foskett.
 
Six Lethargies is Henson’s most involved project to date. It has taken three years and a huge amount of emotion, deep thought and intricate work. As a piece it is often simple and musically modest, but is charged with deep feeling and an honest communication of experience.