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Keaton Henson on creating 'Six Lethargies' | reviews, news & interviews

Keaton Henson on creating 'Six Lethargies'

Keaton Henson on creating 'Six Lethargies'

The singer-songwriter ponders the interconnection between music and human emotion

Keaton Henson: 'Music has always been one of the primary tools in explaining one's feelings'

This Friday, July 20, sees the world premiere of Six Lethargies, a composition by the singer-songwriter Keaton Henson, created collaboratively with various artists, including the Britten Sinfonia who’ll be performing it. Henson, who has six acclaimed albums to his name and is also a successful visual artist, created the work over three years around the theme of anxiety and depression. By way of research, as well as drawing on his personal experiences in the area of mental health, he met with neuroscientists and music theorists, eventually bringing an immersive installation element to the performance, with some of the audience having their reactions monitored via bio-metrics, to create visual effects. Exclusively for theartsdesk Henson has written about the experience of creating this composition and, more generally, about the interconnection between music and human emotion…

From a purely inherent standpoint, music and emotion have always seemed to me to be utterly inseparable. As an artist, music is the tool I reached for to describe the indescribable and explain my experiences to others in a way that I knew they would understand, in spite of language or culture, whether they like the songs or not.

But as my music began to reach more and more people, the more I became aware of just how effective a tool for empathy it can be.

Three years ago I began composing a long-form orchestral work based on intense experiences of anxiety, depression and trauma. At the time it was purely a device by which to try and externalise acute internal feelings, and to divert myself from said feelings in something dense, intricate and depictive. However, a year into the all-consuming process of writing what would become Six Lethargies, I also found myself needing to know more about this tool and how/why it works, as well as how far it can go. This led to discussions with composers, music theorists and neuroscientists to discover what is happening with this ancient art form and how it is used.

Music is an elemental thing, it appears to be inherent in our species, and, as with all inherent phenomena, it serves a purpose for us as a people, and from what we can gather this purpose is communicative, and more specifically communicating emotion.

If I explain to you in great detail a negative experience; a break-up, or a terrifying encounter, say, your brain can take the necessary paths to allow you to empathise. You can imagine how it must feel, recall similar experiences that you have been through, or empathise in a purely instinctive way. But, if I were to write a song about that break-up, or choose the chords and melodic patterns that best sum up that experience to me, and then play you that music, your psychological journey is almost instant, you don’t have to imagine how it must feel, you simply feel it.

As such, music has always been one of the primary tools in explaining one's feelings. If you are happy, you can write it musically and people will dance with you. If you are sad and write it, similarly they will cry. And what better uniting force than communal empathy and a sharing of similar experience?

If asked specifically how you channel emotion into music, I would just say, for me, that you write until it resonates with that emotion, memory or experience for you as you write. Like rubbing your finger on the rim of a glass, it’s that sensation where you catch the right frequency and feel the glass begin to hum. When I hit that same feeling while composing, in relation to the emotion or memory I am trying to convey, I know that it’s probably the right direction, and in theory will resonate similarly with others when heard. 

There are, of course, elemental and complicated musical devices one could use to create the same feelings, and more educated composers than me will use them to great effect. This doesn’t mean they feel it any less, but as an instinctive, introspective composer, after all my research into how music affects our brains, this is still the technique I feel is most likely to make others feel what I do.

Below: Keaton Henson performs an impromptu on a theme from Six Lethargies in the Barbican Library


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