About 15 years ago, I discovered ‘music therapy’ on a journey through San Francisco. I was 18 and homeless at the time, trying to sort my life out with only a backpack and my acoustic guitar to keep me company. For at least 8 years prior, music had been my mission in life and when I found myself talking to strangers at a local cafe about music therapy being offered as a major at a local college, I felt an inkling of relief knowing that music had taken the next step in our culture, from the inner annals of the musician’s nonstop self-indulgence to the disassociation of selfless utility on a broken society in much need of fresh therapeutic solutions. While there have always been people who simply cannot function enough on their own to stay out of some kind of trouble, inflicted on themselves or others, I’ve always felt (and still do) that pills are not the answer for most of us suffering from normal people problems like stress, anxiety, depression and self-esteem. Prescription medications are, at the core, drugs that can be abused recreationally and cause a whole new set of problems for the patient.
To me, music performance always made sense as an outlet for the angry and depressed, especially those in need of a lot of attention and praise if you go the route of pop music or rock and roll. By contrast, what I had always found fascinating about classical and jazz genres was the amount of mental work involved in the writing and performing of the music — even though I always found it pleasurable, and maybe even a little addictive, creating classical or jazz music has always felt mentally draining and overly demanding. It would make sense that this would be a way to cope for some people who have too much going on in their heads: manifesting their ideas into the physical world may make room for peace in an otherwise preoccupied mind, yet friends of mine who studied music therapy have told me that the opposite is also true. I’ve been told that the over-[self]-stimulated, such as schizophrenics and bipolars, often find very simple, quiet music to be calming and other, complicated music to stimulate too much in their brains for them to handle. This too made a lot of sense to me after visiting with a relative of mine who suffers from schizophrenia; when attempting to have a conversation with him, it was like playing a cat and mouse game of verbal connect-the-dots and the obviousness of how severely complicated his mental state had become made my realization of his illness come to life very fast. I also suddenly realized that I never really understood schizophrenia before now and that people in my relative’s frame of mind may need more calming than anything else in their lives.
When Brian Eno displayed his audiovisual installation ’77 Million Paintings’ at the Brighton Festival in 2010, it was more than just a work of art. The installation literally produced what onlookers(listeners) described as a “peace on Earth” that had an undeniable calming effect on many who experienced it. And when orthopaedic surgeon Robin Turner took his normally over-stimulated and “fidgety” mother there, he saw the calmed side of her that only had previously existed in his imagination. It only makes sense that just a few years later that very same experience would be offered by Turner as a medical service to those with poor mental health.
In a hospital “quiet room” designed by none other than Eno (a man dubbed “the godfather of ambient music” by many), Turner hopes patients can “think, take stock or simply relax” while taking in the peaceful music created by Eno in the new £34m private Montefiore hospital in Hove.
Eno tells the Guardian:
“It seemed a natural step for me to take as I’ve been dealing with this idea of functional music for quite a few years. I’ve met many women who have had children listening to one of my records so I knew there was this dimension and here, in the last couple of days I’ve met patients and staff who have said, ‘I really like that room, it makes a big difference.’ I’m so thrilled with having done this and I think it is helpful to people, I really think it’s useful. And the good news is it isn’t expensive or require sophisticated technology.”
As noted on the hospital website:
The “Quiet Room for Montefiore” is a room available downstairs to patients, visitors and staff as a place to “escape” – somewhere to think, take stock or simply relax; “77 Million Paintings for Montefiore” is an installation of light and generative music in the reception area.
I was happy to learn that this wasn’t actually the first time that Eno had attempted to use music in a functional way, specifically for the calming effect. In 1980, he designed an album of music to calm nervous riders flying to and from La Guardia airport in New York.
What intrigues me the most about this whole concept is the functionality of what was once simply an art installation and is now beginning to serve a purpose in society beyond the self-importance of a musician. The last century (and even the 21st) has seen quite a bit of festivals and large concerts for various charity causes by both celebrity musicians and underground, but this is the first time I’ve discovered a musician using their music functionally in a more intimate and focused manner, almost as a medical tool of sorts. Needless to say, I am on the edge of my seat for what is next..