Keaton Henson: The mechanisms of empathy

A conversation with Keaton Henson for New Scientist, 16 July 2018

What inspired your new composition Six Lethargies?

Keaton Henson     Sad songs are something we all understand. I wondered if, instead of bringing people to tears, which can be quite cathartic, I could give them a direct musical experience of my anxiety disorder. When I used to perform live, I would distract myself from my anxiety by watching my audience – this group of 3000 strangers – and how they reacted to certain chord changes and certain inflections in my voice. You can really feel this happening. I became fascinated by the mechanisms of empathy.

And music is one of those mechanisms?

KH     For sure. Every culture we know of dances around a fire. Our heartbeats sync up, we all follow this one rhythm, and we feel the tribe unite. If I explain my break-up in words, say, you will be able to understand to a degree what I’m going through. But if I write a piece of music and play it to you, you might just start crying, and that’s totally incredible because I’m not giving you any framework. I’m not necessarily reminding you of something from your past. It’s purely those patterns that are bringing you to tears.

KH     The Britten Sinfonia are performing a piece in six movements, and five of these movements simply explain how I feel. But there’s also a movement that’s designed to elicit those feelings in the Barbican Hall audience, which is where Brendan comes in.

Brendan Walker    I’m best known for my work helping design roller-coasters. More generally, I’m playing with the synergies between bodily rhythms and patterns in nature that have an emotional impact. Think, for example, about breathing rhythm, heartbeat, and why we find calm in the sound of waves crashing on a beach. For Six Lethargieswe’re gathering electrodermal activity data from a portion of the audience. The electrical conductivity of the skin is the physiological trait most closely associated with the state of anxiety and the one that’s most easily decoded.

KH     Brendan’s kit is set up so that a tiny pore on someone’s fingertip will control the hall’s huge lighting rig, in real time. It’s an amazing thing, and very beautiful. It can be a very uniting and comforting thing to be surrounded by people. At the same time, being surrounded by people you don’t know is a perfect breeding ground for anxiety. The more anxious you become, the more you feel, “Oh God, I’m anxious again, and everyone will notice!” Well, we’re going to be projecting people’s anxiety through the entire lighting rig of the Barbican Hall. This perfectly represents what anxiety is like.

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And the more anxious the audience is, the more anxious you’re going to make them…

BW     Yes. In the movement I’m working on, we’re not just trying to communicate. We’re trying to actually elicit a state of anxiety. We’re talking about having quiet rooms and ways to extract people if they feel panicked at any stage.

KH     I’m hoping that Friday’s performance at the Barbican will be the first of many. We’re interested in trying different things for each show, including varying the type of data we gather, and who we choose to gather data from.

How much research went into this piece?

KH     In particular I went to Canada to meet with a cognitive neuroscientist called Jessica Grant who studies the relationship between music, rhythm and emotion. But I’m a massive science nerd, and I’m wary of crossing too far into the realm of research. I wanted to use scientific thought and theory to help express what I’m feeling. I didn’t want *Six Lethargies* to become manipulative or sterile.

How did you go about composing Six Lethargies?

KH     I kept asking myself, what’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to achieve? It’s probably baroque music, because that’s all about resolving tension, again and again. It delivers these constant hits of relief. I don’t want to give too much away about the show, but a lot of it is going to be about what people think they’re going to get next — and what I can do to stop them getting it.

You could simply not turn up…

KH     I’ve given myself certain limitations! For instance, I’m composing purely for string orchestra – believe me, you can do some really weird stuff with strings. And Six Lethargies is a tonal composition. Atonal music is everyone’s go-to method for inducing anxiety. But I’m a singer-songwriter. I write pop songs. I work with intervals and scales. I decided I would try to make an anxious piece while hitting all the proper notes.

“Proper” for whom?

KH     Music is built out of the melody of speech, and the way our speech patterns convey emotion. We assume Western music is a sort of universally understood music that can convey emotion intuitively to all cultures, and as it turns out we’re not altogether wrong. Pretty much everyone around the world will hear the Moonlight Sonata and think, Wow, Beethoven must have been really sad when he wrote that.

Do people expect anxiety to sound a certain way?

KH     A lot of people have been talking to me about Bernard Herrmann’s theme music for the film Psycho. And, naturally, I’ve avoided any suggestion of that in this project. I want to avoid anything that people might expect to hear. Anxiety is all about not knowing what is going to happen next.

Is that what it’s like to have your anxiety disorder?

KH     In horror movies, when the terrifying thing bursts out of the door, you’re given this horrible fright which lasts a millisecond and is immediately followed by a sigh of relief. You’re pulling on a string and then releasing it. For me, that tension is never released. It’s like an infinite rollercoaster, just building up, and up, and the higher it gets, the more you realise the drop is going to be very steep indeed…

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

The dreams our stuff is made of

 

We imagine things before we make them, from spacecraft to smartphones – and designers often turn artists’ imaginings of the future into our everyday reality. So who’s in charge?

I am.

At least, I will be on 29 June when I herd Matt Smith (editor of 2000 AD) spaceflight expert Piers Bizony and architect Liam Young into London’s Barbican Centre for a session called The Dreamer’s Club. Fun and games begin at 7.30pm. Details and tickets here.