Guest post by Douglas MacGregor

My mother died when I was only seven years old, but I never grieved. It was not until twenty-five years later that all that suppressed grief hit me. The experience took over my life for a year and, as a musician and composer, I naturally turned to music to help me through.

At the same time, I was doing a Masters in ethnomusicology at SOAS and I completed my dissertation in the cross-cultural role of sacred music in grief and death rituals where I linked the ‘dual process’ psychological model of bereavement to musical practices around the world.

The culmination of these two experiences – one highly personal and emotive, the other more objective and researched-based – led me to found a new project called Songs of Loss and Healing, which aims to explore further the connection between music, loss, grief and healing.

Music and loss 

The link between music at times of death is virtually ubiquitous: from David’s biblical dirges and the myth of Orpheus to modern pop music, from hymns and requiems to traditional laments, folk songs and ritual musical practices the world over. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld even pondered whether some of the earliest forms of music would not have been primitive polyphonic laments upon death.

Through my research, however, I noticed that despite the ubiquity of the link between music, loss and grief, very little was actually understood about the role of music. We might all have an inkling of how music has helped us with our own losses, but there is very little formalised or academic knowledge, especially when it comes to what is happening on the emotional and psychological level. Non-academically, there also seems to be little music-related information or guidance for those in times of loss save for a handful of articles and a few playlists.

In traditional societies, music has almost always been tied to rites and ritual surrounding death. It often harnesses raw emotion and channels it into the ritual outcome, bringing communities together in shared sentiment around collectively held beliefs in death and the afterlife. Numerous ethnographic studies indicate that many of these musical ceremonies have a very real psychological effect in helping the participants cope with loss and grief.

The Yolngu, aboriginal people in Northern Australia, for example, have highly performative musical funeral rites that last for two weeks. Women spontaneously start singing weeping songs upon a death and, over the coming days, these songs turn into personalised narratives of the deceased taking in kinship and ancestral connections and totemically related landscape. These rites lead the bereaved along a path from raw emotional outpouring to a culturally negotiated grief, separation from the dead and re-integration of bereaved back into society. Remembrance is then possible through such songs of place and kinship.

In modern Western societies, many have turned away from traditional systems of belief as funerals, grief and remembrance become ever more personalised and idiosyncratic. But this does not necessarily mean that people have found equivalent replacements, especially so when it comes to overwhelming experiences of grief.

Indeed, many taboos on death and grief persist, and the belief that grief is or should be highly personal leaves many alienated and suffering alone. Furthermore, low death rates mean that many have little or no experience of death while the secularised individualism of West often means for fragmented communities and scattered families. When death does strike, individuals and families may simply lack the necessary tools, community or guidance.

Music’s Role 

Music, however, is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss. Understanding the role it can play can help artist and listener better utilise and direct this power.

Firstly, music is a legitimate space for grief – even extended forms of grief that last long after society deems it acceptable to talk about. Art has always been a space that can communicate past taboo, express the unsayable, give new perspective and open dialogue.

Music therapists have long known that music can help externalise hidden feelings, help regulate emotion, and give that emotion direction. Furthermore, in music, emotion can be communicated, allowing for a sharing of experience – it shows us we are not alone in our internal worlds and can bring us together. Music can also simply allow us to feel a connection with someone lost and remember them.

Music is so fascinating as it finds itself on the border between articulable and the inarticulable elements of consciousness; on one hand, the intellectual and narrative, and on the other, the emotional experience, the subconscious or the soul. Especially in times of loss when we may most keenly feel our emotional undercurrents, music helps us connect with and discover ourselves. It can potentially bridge the gap between intellectual and emotional responses.

My personal experience

When I experienced delayed grief quarter of a century after my mother died, music not only helped me discover, explore and express what was just beyond my conscious view – grief, trauma, half-forgotten memories, intangible senses of place and presence – it also helped me to process those feelings, gain ownership of them, and direct them gradually towards a place of healing.

By the “end”, I had written 7 pieces of solo guitar music, manifestations of and meditations on grief, memory and healing. Each piece is being recorded and filmed in a different specifically chosen non-studio location. The pieces are being released each month along with an accompanying text designed to contextual the music and explore the role music played for me.

Songs of Loss and Healing

It seems to me, however, that a much wider conversation needed to be had and much more exploration to be done. The project Songs of Loss and Healing aims to open up that conversation, to explore this musical connection further, and simply to reach people through music.

In the modern world, our relation to death and grief is changing. With that, musicians and composers should be at the forefront, engaging with, responding to and re-interpreting the ancient link between music and death. For readers of this blog, it might be of particular interest, for example, to see a classical pianist such as Igor Levit in his new album ‘Life’ talk so directly about his personal grief and remembrance through classical music.

In grief, the more we discover and accept, and the more we allow ourselves to feel non-judgmentally, the more likely we are to experience grief as healing. Whether we want to feel and express the existential torment of grief or whether we would like to spiritually re-connect to the departed through song, music, with its keys to the transcendent and to our emotional inner-worlds, is uniquely placed to help us cope with loss. Music can be a consolation, but it can also be much more.

Songs of Loss and Healing aims toexplore and spur this on with a series of interviews, articles, podcasts, releases and collaborations across genres and cultures. It also aims to develop a community engagement angle by providing online resources, organising events, and raising awareness on the potential of music in grief.

 

Songs of Loss and Healing is still in the early and exploratory stages. Right now, we are looking for artists with relevant experience who would like to contribute or be featured.  

Links: www.songsoflossandhealing.com

 

 


Douglas MacGregor is a composer and guitarist. Read more

 

Friday 21st September, Church of St John the Divine, London SW9

Christina McMaster, piano

Lie down and Listen is a unique multi-sensory classical music experience created by pianist Christina McMaster and designed to bring the positive effects of classical music on body and mind to a wide audience in unusually relaxed settings. A pioneering combination of music, meditation, Virtual Reality technology and restorative yoga led by Will Wheeler create a deep sense of relaxation.

Neil Franks writes….

The event took place at the lovely St John the Divine Church in Kennington. It was the perfect venue as it has plenty of floor space to “lie down and listen”, with a magnificent Steinway Model D in the middle so that we could surround the piano on our yoga mats. The evening started with a gentle but very well-presented yoga session that even the novice could follow and with no pressure to manoeuvre feet behind ears or anything extreme. In fact the moves presented allowed the inexperienced to participate within their comfort levels. Of course there were plenty of very flexible friends there both to encourage and impress us, and create the atmosphere Christina was aiming for – the first success of the evening.

To the standard classical concert-goer, this appeared to be an ambitious programme and I might be as bold as to suggest that if this concert was planned in the standard format, the choice might limit its audience unless it were specifically targeted. On the other hand, this was a great success as it drew in a lot of young people (and other ages too!), largely because of the experimental interest, and there is no doubt everyone was pleasantly surprised as Christina’s programme was beautiful and absorbing – nowhere near as intimidating as many might fear, by the likes of Philip Glass, John Cage, Arvo Part etc. Taking my daughter Charlotte along was in itself an experiment for me, and we both enjoyed the evening. (She has grown up with me thumping away at the piano and having to sit through numerous piano recitals that she would rather not go to, but it was successful and enjoyable for her as it was with many other audience members who I’m sure will now seriously consider going to, and enjoying, a standard concert presentation of this sort of music.

In addition to the piano music, the programme featured two beautiful choral works, including The Fruits of Silence by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, a magnificent and absorbing finale from the choir with subtle accompaniment from Christina.

Of course I and any other old traditionalists went to hear Christina’s performance of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, and, as expected, we were immensely satisfied, considering Christina’s talent and empathy with this music. But to add to the expected was the unexpected bonus of the special environment: Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata wouldn’t work in this format, but Debussy flourishes.

It may be that, as mentioned in the programme, this concept was conceived in and amongst the thinking rooms at New York’s National Addiction Centre and studies related to their subject and efforts to improve the well-being of people under their care, study and attention. I gather that early experiments used the minimalist music of Terry Riley, but I don’t think I could categorise Christina’s programme as “minimalist”. I suppose it might been drier had we all been wearing shirts and ties at the South Bank, and if some of these pieces were in presented in a more traditional programme/concert setting, but I have to believe this audience were instantly converted and I know they will go to more. They will go to the South Bank and listen to a Debussy recital now, something they wouldn’t have dreamt of doing before.

The only traditional thing I had to do was to take the initiative of leading the applause as the audience didn’t quite know what to do at the end (the programme was presented so that there was no applause between pieces as that would have interfered with the atmosphere).

I wish Christina every success in this venture and in spreading the word in this way as it will draw much attention, and I very much hope that the good work in the thinking rooms I referred to will be hugely successful too.

 

The next Lie Down and Listen concert is on 16 November at St John the Divine church. Full details and tickets here

Meet the Artist interview with Christina McMaster


Neil Franks is Chairman of Petworth Festival, a regular concert-goer and a advanced amateur pianist.