Last week I visited the Oxfordshire Science Festival to participate in Awake!, an event combining discussion and live music to examine the phenomenon of AAGA (accidental awareness during general anaesthesia). A large study led by Professor Jaideep Pandit was recently concluded, exploring the nature of patients’ experiences. Happily, his findings confirm that the incidence is less widespread than had been assumed based on previous statistics. Consultant anesthetist Andrew Morley led a creative project with support from the Wellcome Trust to commission a new work from composer Michael Zev Gordon and poet Ruth Padel, following their previous success collaborating on Music from the Genome.
Into the Dark is written for mezzo, buddhist singing bowl, electronics and piano. Fortunately I only had to manage the bowl, as experts were on hand in the form of Andrew West (piano) and Julien Guillemat (electronics) to provide the other sound textures. Woven through the piece are musical and text fragments of Mahler’s Zwei Blaue Augen from his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; when Michael first met Hilary Summers (for whom the piece was written) this was what she sang to him so that he could hear her voice. The text of Into the Dark is informed by some of the early findings from the research project and presents as the experience of a single patient some of the details reported by people who experienced AAGA. The singer slips into unconsciousness (as it were) at the beginning of the piece and emerges into wakefuless at the end; in-between she reports experiences of heightened awareness, colours, sounds, memories and dreams.
In addition to this, Andrew and I performed a group of songs relating to sleep and dreaming; Warlock’s Sleep, Stanford’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Wagner’s Träume, the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe (with words tweaked to describe my take on the classic musician’s nightmare) and George Crumb’s The Sleeper.
Crumb is known for his imaginative use of extended piano techniques and in The Sleeper the pianist creates a wonderful range of atmospheric effects by strumming and stopping the resonance of the strings. Performing it requires a degree of acrobatics – The Sleeper was written to be performed on a Steinway D and yesterday’s Steinway C presented unexpected hurdles in the form of the internal architecture of the piano. Andrew needed to lean a long way into the piano to achieve these, which is harder than it looks even without a broken ankle.