Composer and researcher Andrew Hall argues that now is the time for sonic experimentalists to get involved in health and wellbeing.



Experimentalism within ‘Arts in Health’

The field that has come to be known as ‘Arts in Health’ is undergoing a surge in interest at the moment, following a significant 2017 parliamentary report and endorsements from the current health secretary Matt Hancock.  It’s a vast area, encompassing creative work undertaken across all age ranges in a number of healthcare or community settings, and includes everything from live performances to clinical research trials.  In an NHS which is increasingly recognising the importance of mental health and its impact on the physical, interest in the role of the arts in modern healthcare is likely to continue to grow in years to come.

Amidst the developing conversation around ‘Arts in Health’ – or, more specifically, music in health – what is little discussed is the potential role of contemporary musicians, composers, sound artists and technologists, particularly those who might consider their work to be ‘experimental’.  Such work may too readily be dismissed as inappropriate for such settings, not only by commissioners but also by artists themselves

Over the last three years I’ve been working with CW+, the charity for the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and in this time I’ve worked on a variety of music projects throughout the hospital.  I’ve seen first-hand some of the growing demand for the arts in this setting, with clinicians, patients and visitors enthusiastically embracing participatory music workshops, live performances and sound installations (more information on the charity’s ‘Art and Design’ programme can be found here).

However, it was with some trepidation that I made my first steps into this setting, only too aware that my musical training had been based on the ideologies of post-war modernism and the avant-garde.  I felt very keenly the apparent conflict of being an experimental musician in an environment which is already so disorientating, and in which people most desire a return to normality and control.  Over time, however, I began to see the hospital as a fascinating space in which to work: its huge range of environments and diverse demographic of users confronts a musician with challenges relating to choice, agency, emotion, vulnerability and power, and exposes in a very direct way people’s attitudes to both music and technology.

A nurse putting some music on using an integrated iPad on the ward at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London.

In this setting I found my sense of experimentalism shifting away from musical content and instead focussing on form, interaction and implementation.  For example, the potential for interactive technologies to empower patients to take control of their sonic environment has become central to this work: one project led to the creation of a vote-based ‘democratic’ jukebox that enables collective music curation in large waiting areas, whilst another used Ableton and MaxMSP to create a system which could adjust the tempo of music playback in accordance with the changing heart-rate of the listener (you can read more about this here).  Elsewhere in the hospital I’ve overseen the development of multi-channel generative soundscapes (in collaboration with the Coda to Coda studio), and collaborated with physiotherapists to create a musical tool to aid fine-motor skill rehabilitation following stroke (the subject of blog posts here and here).

In these and other similar projects, a sense of musical and technological experimentalism was essential.  By treating music and sound as a malleable substance, and by enabling patients to manipulate it, we can give them a sense of control in an environment which tends to be disempowering.  I’m not alone in developing such approaches in this setting: other examples include the BCMI-MIdAS (‘Brain-Computer Music Interface for Monitoring and Inducing Affective States’), a joint project between cyberneticist Slawomir Nasuto and composer-researcher Eduardo Miranda, not to mention the instruments and tools developed by creative music-technologists such as Pedro Kirk.

It would be easy to dismiss this work as being technology-focused, but perhaps the most important contribution of composers in this area is the knowledge of music theory and compositional craft.  The literature on music in healthcare too often reduces music to the status of being ‘relaxing’, at times declaring clinically significant effects for a listener without even giving details of what music has been played.  Composers should be at the centre of these considerations, bringing their knowledge of harmony, rhythm and timbre to bear on a research field which can have a tendency to over-simplify.

This kind of reductionism is also a wider cultural issue of course. But with policies such as ‘Social Prescribing’ likely to bring ‘Arts in Health’ increasingly into public life, experimental musicians have a chance to ensure that approaches to music and sound therein are forward-thinking, diverse and creative.  Now is the time for sonic experimentalists everywhere to get involved with the world of ‘Arts in Health’, and in doing so bring the vibrancy of their practices to this fast-evolving frontier of public engagement.

Andrew Hall is a composer, performer and music researcher based in South London.  He is the Music and Sound Research Consultant for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where he specialises in researching uses of new music and sound technology in healthcare. His original music has been performed across the UK and Europe, and featured on BBC Radio 3.