The Peabody Institute has provided many splendid concerts and symposia for the Baltimore public. One of the apexes of that splendor occurred last Friday. In conjunction with the medical school of Johns Hopkins University, the Peabody sponsored a panel exploring the link between mental illness and artistic creativity. The focus was the poetry of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), a national poet laureate and a leader of the confessional school of poetry in mid-twentieth century. The centerpiece was the lecture by Kay Redfield Jamison, a medical school faculty member (specialist in mood disorders) and the author of a recent biography of Lowell, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf, 2017). She explored how Lowell's bipolar illness, especially the phases of mania when he ranted, sang, rhymed, and rapidly explored words, informed his brilliant but terrifying verse.
Later in the evening The Flux String Quarter performed Images from A Closed Ward (2010), a thirteen part musical composition by Peabody faculty composer Michael Hersch. Austere and slow-moving, the work evokes the various seasons of mental illness. Often atonal, this is painful music to hear, but as the work progresses, rays of hope and normalcy seem to penetrate the muted sounds of bewilderment and despair. The slow, repetitive movements gradually take form into something more sun-streaked and harmonious. Renowned for its championship of contemporary serious music, the Flux String Quartet brilliantly performed this demanding piece, with its arctically slow tempos, and turned its painful emotional impulses into alternately muffled and soaring plaints.
During the performance stark passages from Lowell appeared on the screen--"And the laugh of Death is hacked in sandstone"---as did slowly dissolving black-and-white photographs of old, abandoned mental institutions. Both visually and audially, the weight and lacerating power of mental suffering undulated from the stage. In this work and performance of genius, the unbearable could be heard and seen, indeed almost touched.
This is very difficult music. As the composer lamented in his introductory remarks before the concert, serious contemporary music has difficulty finding an attentive public. The modest crowd on Friday night was far smaller than the usual crowds for Mozart or Brahms. At the end of the first movements some of the concertgoers made clear their displeasure as they slammed the theater doors and exited. For those of us who remained, we not only heard a lecture about the link between mental suffering and creativity; we witnessed its embodiment in something sublime.