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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Music and Mental Illness: Buttonwood by Greg Spears

Tonight, the JACK Quartet gave a stunning world-premiere performance of Buttonwood by Greg Spears at the Crane Arts center in Philadelphia. It was a piece of beauty musically, conceptually, and contextually. Beauty undefined in all its abstraction.

Contextually, the piece reflects Greg’s experience as an artist-in-residence at the Buttonwood Psychiatric Hospital in the winter of 2010. During intermission, I talked with Dr. Schimmel and other hospital workers, who described Greg’s interaction with and dedication to the patients as going beyond anything expected. He would attend 3 hour meetings with hospital workers and patients, and trudge through coldness and snow to get there. He not only composed and performed for patients, but played with them. According to Dr. Schimmel, Buttonwood “captures the treatment team’s enthusiasm and narrative through various disciplines…the cacophony, feelings, and moods of the patients.” Conceptually, Greg describes the piece as portraying the “sense of external normalcy versus the intense drone of internal struggle” in the narratives of the patients. It is a beautiful concept—of leaving an imprint of such an experience for the composer, the patients, and the world, each able to take away what each will, with the hope that music can better the understanding of psychiatric illness.

Musically, the piece is one of profound beauty (if you’re willing to take my word for it). There is beauty in deviation. The violin reaches out in fragments of desperate abrupt crescendos against the drone of the cello. We feel the intense internal struggle of individual patients, of the desperate attempt to break the entrapment of illness (the violin’s cries) grounded by a sense of external continuity found in the hospital (the cello’s drone). Even in seeming normalcy, elements of deviation are detected by the listening ear. For example, there are times when two violins play the same melody the same time, but one is “normal,” the other is “dirty”, with scratches and screechings, signaling that while in life appears to continue in all its external regularity, inside things are on the verge of breaking apart. The piece begins and ends with a sense of peace and calmness, surprising given the context of psychiatric struggle and cacophony. Yet, beneath the calmness is a quiet loneliness, found in the quiet high-pitched cry of a violin. We leave with this sense of quiet loneliness steeped in an understanding of intense internal struggle—deep, profound, and beautiful.  

Yet, perhaps even more touching, even more beautiful than the conception, performance, or composition was the reception of the piece. Person after person after person came to talk to Greg after the performance (received with standing ovation), and to hear the words of gratitude from those from the hospital, to see the smiles on their faces and the appreciative warmth in their eyes, speaks to impact of Buttonwood in capturing the "quiet drama" of mental illness that could not be expressed, or only too often misunderstood.  Buttonwood is a testament to hidden struggle of the mentally ill, and a testament to the power of music to express where words fail.