Your song cycle Hearing Voices is receiving its world premiere this weekend. Can you tell us how the piece came about?
My great aunt, Phyllis, was in an asylum for the last 25 years of her life and my mum was always outraged by that, because Phyllis was one of those women who couldn’t get out once she’d got in. But she should not have been there, by all accounts. She had a breakdown after about a year and when she died she left mum her belongings in a big trunk, with all this writing she’d done, particularly in the course of her breakdown. It’s an extraordinary document of a breakdown and of someone trying to make sense of what was happening to her. I was always interested in doing something with it.
The piece also tells the stories of four other women’s experiences of mental illness – including your own mother…
Yes that’s right, my mum had a breakdown in the 1950s and she had always been very matter of fact and open about it. But she’d written a book about it as well, as a result of being made to feel so ashamed of it at the time, there was really such a stigma – that's still true today, but less so. I was making recordings with people who had mental illnesses – like my mum and [artist] Bobby Bakes – to inform the piece but it became a song cycle about five different women from five different generations.
One section focuses on the story of Agnes Richter – who was she?
I read Gail Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket which is about a search for the meaning of madness and it focuses on this woman, Agnes Lister. Very little is known about her. She was in an asylum in the late 1800s and she made this extraordinary jacket out of torn-up uniforms, and she embroidered it in writing, every inch of it. It’s an extraordinary object and Hornstein is trying to decode the writing.
The performance artist Bobby Baker is one of the women who features in your piece. Much of her own work dealing with mental illness is darkly comic. Is there a humorous element to Hearing Voices?
Bobby terms it ‘survival’. I think it’s a sort of human instinct – all the people I interviewed for the piece made jokes. There’s one piece in Hearing Voices, just devoted to that and I’ve ended up making a kind of music out of their laughter – notating their giggles.
Why did you decide to write the work for mezzo-soprano, as well as orchestra and recorded voices?
I have a long-standing collaborative relationship with mezzo Melanie Pappenheim and I’d always imagined doing a piece about my great aunt, Phyllis, with her. Melanie seemed like the perfect presence, but it also happens she is a direct descendant of Bertha Pappenheim, who was Freud’s famous patient known by the pseudonym, Anna O. The piece works around Melanie and at times her singing weaves in with the recorded voices. There’s one section inspired by a case history in Hornstein’s book in which a woman is walking down the street and hears voices shouting. She turns around and there’s no one there. And that’s how her voices start. One can’t quite imagine what that’s like.
Jocelyn Pook’s 'Hearing Voices' is performed on Monday 3 December at London’s Southbank Cenre by the BBC Concert Orchestra