‘Six Lethargies’ is a six part, long form work for string orchestra, written by musician, composer, writer and visual artist Keaton Henson. The album explores themes of trauma, empathy, mental illness, and the relationship between music and emotion. It was created intensively over three years, during intense episodes of the very themes it explores. He used his personal experience to plot out six distinct elements of trauma, anxiety and emotional difficulties. Unable himself to read or write music, Henson first created maps of his personal experience, using complex linear drawings and paintings which he then translated into themes and melodies. A common theme throughout his work is always the element of emotion and vulnerable honesty; he shares the darkest and most complex parts of his personal experiences via his art, leading to work of breathtaking emotional resonance. By contrast, Henson himself is generally reclusive, revealing little else of himself, wherever possible avoiding interviews or public appearances.
As the ‘Six Lethargies’ project began to take shape, Henson reached out to neuroscientists, psychologists and music theorists, to learn more about the acute relationship between music and emotion, and specifically its effect on us physiologically. ‘Thrill engineer’ and bio-data expert Brendan Walker worked closely with Henson to investigate this relationship and developed software to monitor electrodermal activity (EDA) in order to create a real time visual representation of the link between feelings, anxiety and music. In fact, when ‘Six Lethargies’ made its stunning sold out debut at London’s Barbican in July 2018, a portion of the audience were hooked up to ‘galvanic skin response monitors’, which read their anxiety levels in real time whilst listening to the performance, this in turn was fed to the lighting desk and it was this that controlled the colour and intensity of the venue’s lighting rig. As a result the audience were effectively watching how they were feeling while listening to the music, and as a result this amplified the emotional response of the audience to the music. Known for his past struggles to perform live due to anxiety disorders, Henson himself watched from the sidelines as the audience reacted to an Orchestra performing the work with lighting controlled by their emotions.
This show marked the first new work by Henson for several years, he had released a number of indie/folk albums in previous years – resulting in plays on Radio 1 and huge critical praise, but due in part to the challenges posed by this growing renown and constant demands for him to perform live and appear publicly he had instead decided to retreat from the public eye, disappearing from the world of music and art. However, following the success of the Barbican event, performances at Sydney Opera House and the National Concert Hall Dublin followed. These shows were immersive, measurable experiences which showed how music can physiologically affect the body. They also illustrated how anxiety can be monitored and how it’s triggers could be potentially monitored or predicted, perhaps even eventually controlled, an important factor to consider when dealing with anxiety.
The success of these shows led to the recording of the ‘Six Lethargies’ album, recorded earlier this year with the Liverpool Philharmonic at The Friary in Liverpool. Through its six movements the finished recording conveys both a personal, internal experience but it also seeks to create the possibility of a similar physiological response in the listener. Six Lethargies is a profound and intense musical experience, but it is also, completely tonal, musical and ultimately an enjoyable listen on various levels. In spite of its subject matter and meticulous design, it is music that can be listened to as you would Henson’s compositional heroes such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Barber and Pärt. However, it can also be listened to as a cathartic and purgative experience, unbroken from beginning to end, taking the mind and body through a series of peaks and troughs and eventually leaving it in a stimulated but calm state.