Voice, sound – it’s such a curious thing, so tenuous, yet strong. Music is something physical, but purely mental too. In a recent BBC radio series, ‘Why Music?’, a panel of neurologists and musicians discussed singing. One said: ‘The voice is inside you. It is you and you are it. And it is hidden. The sound you’re imagining in your head you have to make come out of your mouth.’ This is a simple statement that encapsulates so much of the paradox and perplexity of expression in the human mind, and the challenge of expressing yourself through mental illness. How words can fail to grip the thoughts they were meant to contain. And there they go into the mind of someone else, uncomprehended.
The Herald recently reported the issue of extreme social isolation in Scotland, as cases were being presented to the Scottish Parliament in an urge to consider isolation as a public health issue ‘on par with poverty and poor housing’. It is a problem among elderly people in particular; as their partners and friends die, and due to ill-health, they are unable to find new people to socialise with, which can lead to further ill-health or dementia.
But it is also a problem that people face in all areas and ages, compounded or even caused by poverty. When the ‘sound you are imagining in your head’ feels desperate to you, and seems unwelcome to others, how do you make it come out of your mouth in a way that will be acceptable to the people around you? Those with mental health issues are particularly vulnerable to experiencing isolation and an inability to express their thoughts. But social isolation does also cause or trigger mental health issues. The two feed each other, tying the closed circuit tighter.
The Headspace Festival Day at Platform in Glasgow was a selection of performances and creative work designed to express experiences with mental ill-health from those who experience it first-hand. It featured the Easterhouse Conversations, Platform to Health and Creative Collective programs, where musicians working with people with mental health issues collaborated to write and perform songs; Ida’s Diary, a beautiful documentary film made out of the personal video diary of a woman dealing with borderline personality disorder and self-harm issues; the Aspire exhibition of paintings from Project Ability that empowers people with disabilities to become painters; and the spoken word collection ‘Mark of the Beast’ by poet Martin O’Conner about drinking and Glasgow, who will be working with people in recovery cafes over the next year to develop the work.
As each of the Creative Collective performers introduced their songs, they briefly described their pasts and the experiences that inspired them. The effects of creative practice, such as music, on mental health remarkably improves self-image. In turn, this helps bridge connections to a larger community, which positively impacts society’s relationship to those experiencing mental ill-health, and helps to heal the stigma. How do you find a way to describe those struggles to people around you every day, so that they might know you? It can be too much, too hard, to express in the everyday. But in moments like this, as they sang, you could see how good it felt to be honest. You can sing. You can paint. You can film.
The Turntable installation was also a part of the day’s events, where a selection of records was left out for people to choose and bring up to the record player where it would be played and you’d have a chance to talk to a volunteer about the song. But for me, it felt weird and flat to be talking about my memory of the song. I’d be more interested in the stories other people shared. When I was talking about my memory as we played my song, the person across from me was interested and related to me, but how can you make someone feel the associations that connect you to a specific bit of music? How can you communicate what you imagine in your head to a separate person?
This installation made me realise the way we are confounded in communication. It made me recognise the power of music to go beyond language. It’s the reason enacting in the body through music can feel more direct than talking about it. But how is music, something invisible, such a physical thing? Sound is nonlinear, unlike language. It connects unconnected things in a way that language can’t. It starts with a finite idea, but with each new person’s interaction, there are infinitely multiplying perspectives bouncing off it. That’s the way we tell stories about ourselves without saying a word. How we create art to communicate. But to talk to each other to try and express that selfsame thing – it can fail so many times. Music isn’t a tangible object but drifts into us, it encompasses us, it’s the atmosphere. It contains our bodies and pours into our minds. It’s better just to listen.
There was something very physical weaving together all the performances that day that affected the atmosphere. It felt genuinely like a community. The sounds of old records wafting through the lobby and the café, the way the film we saw about Ida had her scarred body fill up your eyes, as well as her joys and friendships, or the immensely expressive and colourful paintings by Project Ability, and the spoken word performance that resonated in everyone’s laughter.
Loneliness and isolation aren’t solved in one stroke, and that’s the challenge. These songs, films, paintings, poems had most impact in the humour, joy and passion between people. After you express the indecipherable feelings, there are smaller everyday moments that still need understanding and hope. To this end, Platform runs a year-round program of group activities called Platform to Health, including crafts, art, performance and music, to address social isolation and mental ill-health in east Glasgow.
Arts programs like these deal with the isolation and mental illness by embodying expression in a physical way. It’s about making a place safe to communicate through your own body. Music and other creative pursuits make demands of your body and your mind, but rather than becoming forceful in response to pressure, it requires openness and fluidity. Music is unique in the way that it is able to encapsulate how the inner mind feels in an external way, without having to work with the failure of words. Playing music, and even just listening to it, physically expresses the inner world. It involves your body almost magically through intangible and omnipresent sound, bringing the freedom to express the inner worlds of multiple people at once without a single explanation.
Written by Heather Lune