This second blog is mainly dedicated to an article Dr Alex Murdin, Arts and Health coordinator at Dorchester Hospital has written about ReFound Sound and my role as composer-in-residence.
But before that, a little about my last visit to Dorchester Hospital.
After attending a cookery class on Barnes Ward [they were making rock cakes] and talking to a number of patients there [and after eating the cakes] Alex and I went on a tour of the hospital to look at potential sites for the installation piece I will be creating. I will need to do the same at Yeovil District Hospital in the coming weeks, too.
I am coming to the end of my research period and am now hunting for some specific feedback around how careers outside of the health profession manage the challenges of dementia, especially when the care being provided is for someone in the family such as a partner and this care is offered at home. More about this after my visit to Yeovil next week when I shall be meeting individuals who have direct experience of caring for loved ones with dementia.
The final compositional shape for the installation is gradually ‘solidifying’ in my mind’s eye and mind’s ear – it’s important for me to see and hear the ‘conceptual’ installation at this stage so I understand how to shape the content of the installation to fulfil the goals I have developed for the piece through this research period. Visiting the locations where the installation could be sited [such as the chapel in the previous blog] helps me to think of the piece in spatial terms and how the musical content can best be delivered in this context.
We had a look at a number of locations around the hospital.
These all have potential, and there is scope for the installation to move around to different parts of the hospital, too.
My favorites are these two more complex intersecting stairways that sit on different levels. As well as acting as a thoroughfare and crossroads for a number of wards, these areas are rich because of the potential they offer for spatial location of the installation vertically on the different floor levels and also horizontally along the corridors.
Permission must to be sought for the installation to be placed in any of these locations as there are a number of people who’s working or visitor / patient requirements for the space must be considered.
A sound installation can be less than enthusiastically received if it dominates a space or drives those who work in or near it to distraction. We need sympathetic hosts who are comfortable with the installation being present whilst being mindful of how the volume of the installation might effect those working in those installed areas.
How quiet can the installation be for it to work and be effective? In my view, an installation that whispers and quietly sings its content can be very effective and affecting. As Alex and I discussed this it became clear that the installation as envisaged would be completely flexible and installed as a whispering, ghostly shimera of sound, or, in another context, such as installed at a conference or arts event, much louder, creating a completely different experience for the audience. I like the idea of the work being adaptable as it increases the scope and possibilities for its continued and varied installation across widely differing locations and hosting needs.
I’d now like to introduce Dr Alex Murdin and the article he’s written about ReFound Sound and my role as composer-in-residence.
The tie between music and memory is one that we are born with and die with. Neurologically, in very simple terms, processing music involves the functioning of at least two different brain networks, as well as invoking those associated with language (songs with lyrics), movement (moving to the rhythm) and its interweaving with other long term memories (the soundtrack of our lives, our celebrations and significant moments). So when some parts of the brain deteriorate as part of conditions like dementia, where the hippocampus responsible for short term memory is effected, music is often preserved as part of other brain function and is able to bring back important memories. So called “implicit musical memory”, which is the subconscious absorption of musical melodies, may be spared until very late stages of the disease (“Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease” (2015), Jacobsen et al. [Online: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/06/03/brain.awv135#ref-59]). Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic who has made a study of music in dementia care, puts it another way: “We tend to remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life, we know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else. So it’s a case of first in, last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.”
It seemed very interesting to us (the Arts in Hospital producers at Dorchester and Yeovil Hospitals) to explore what musicians can do to help us to help those with dementia at our hospitals and in the wider community, as an ageing population means that there will be more and more with forms of cognitive impairment. Both hospitals had already worked together on music programmes before, bringing in live music to the wards with great effect, improving eating, sleep and levels of activity in patients, not to mention the sheer joy it brings – as one nurse said: “I’ve seen patients come alive in front of my eyes”. We therefore wanted to carry on with this work and also to spread the message to health professionals, care workers and carers that music is a powerful medicine. Hence the Arts Council, DCH Hospital Charity and Yeovil Council funded “Refound Sound”, a project which has commissioned more live music in wards and more unusually a composer in residence to write a new piece of music related to memory, music and place.
With the composer in residence we wanted to approach the idea as a research project. Not though in the way typical to the field of arts and health. For the most part those involved in arts and health have focussed on the scientific validation of art as having therapeutic value with direct causal outcomes, better sleep, less painkillers needed, quicker return home etc. (all of which are currently being proven in different fields of scientific research like the examples above). This is part of a burgeoning body of evidence designed to convince health commissioners to spend resources from mainstream health care budgets. With the commission for the composer in residence though we wanted to re-emphasise the innovative potential of the arts as an aesthetic practice, i.e. sensory, piece of research into a situation, context or environment through art in action. Perhaps the greatest thinker on health and society this century, Michel Foucault, describes the idea of forms of practice as research: “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”
To this end the composer, Marc Yeats, was appointed as he has experimented with the limits of the affective potential of music on a wide spectrum in order to reconfigure simplistic binaries of beautiful/ugly, harmonious/discordant, wellbeing/illness etc. In this sense his musical practice is already a prefigurement of the condition of dementia which is a breakdown of brain functions which are applied to regulating normal social relations, judgements about environment, personal activities and day to day life. Our hope is therefore that the resulting work by Marc reaffirms an aesthetic approach to health and wellbeing as a valid research tool, with affective outcomes that nevertheless effectively move people in real ways to reconsider personal and professional approaches to treating and caring for those with dementia.
Dr Alex Murdin