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Music to die for...literally

Features - Classical Music

Music to die for...literally

by Clive Paget on August 5, 2013 (August 5, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
An extraordinary collaborative project in Melbourne attempts to recreate the music we hear when we die.

Melbourne artist Saskia Moore has researched near-death experiences and discovered the near-dying can see not only a tunnel of white light but also sounds similar to classical music. Now Moore has collaborated with acclaimed orchestra ensemble Apartment House to create Dead Symphony, a musical performance and immersive light show inspired by the stories of near-death encounters.

Where did you get the idea for Dead Symphony?

My interest in near-death experiences (NDE) came from a previous project concerning music and memory. I was working with Alzheimers Australia on a community project collecting 35mm slides from Aged Care facilities and the local community of Melbourne. We made a great big old-fashioned 35mm slideshow accompanied by old music from the era. During this project I saw an extraordinary emotional effect the memory of music could have on people. And it was from there, seeing the emotional responses to music I began to wonder what people must hear when they are dying.

How did you go about the research? Was it harrowing or uplifting?

I actually enjoyed talking with people about their astonishing experiences, as well as reading widely and talking with people from different discourses in biological science, neuroscience, medicine, philosophy, spirituality, quantum mechanics and doctors researching death studies. Talking to people about things that are hard to talk about can be inspirational as can learning about life and its extraordinary potential – especially with people who have come close to leaving it.

Tell me about the composing process, how did it work?

I took lengthy documentary recordings of interviews from people who’ve had a near-death experience. We talked and I would sometimes, in real time, find sounds and samples and notes on music making programs, like my synth, and over a period of time, created a sonic map of the music or ‘mini symphonies’ they heard during their experience. By drawings in lines of melodies, humming and working in real time with instrumentation, I could slowly and patiently come to understand the sounds and melodies people heard when they died. The music was transcribed and I composed the music from people’s experiences into a symphony. Heart Failures duet with Coma, many different pieces of documented music come together in this composition. The piece was then arranged for a chamber ensemble to perform live. When performed, the instrumentation is bent, looped and processed in real time to accurately replay the music described during a NDE. It’s wild. Wild and incredibly different. And beautiful.

What were the reactions from the people who’d had the NDE to your music?

When playing back a transcription of their music to people, the emotional response was extraordinary – like I had replayed a real memory in real time back to them. I could see in their faces, the reactions, it’s a rare and beautiful moment, to see memory recalled and relived.

What did you learn about people’s perceptions of death through this art work?

Cultural understanding of death is truly fascinating, the cultural relativity to this universal happening is so intriguing. And within cultures are people, and every person perhaps has their own understanding about death. It’s as true as birth. It was life affirming to talk with people who’d died (for a moment) and come back. New perspectives about what is important to you, what is valued, and how things are loved seems to shift dramatically within them. And this change I find fascinating.

Does the scientific element of hearing sounds during a NDE interest you?

Yes, I have learnt that to date there is very little research or information scientifically documented about sound and NDE. It felt like I was at the frontier, but I am an artist! Speaking to scientific minds in this field of study was truly fascinating.

What do you hope that people will take away from the work?

I’ve been told the work is uplifting and beautiful (which is lovely). The work is very alive with sounds and music never heard before. It’s part documentary, part art, part performance. It’s immersive and unusual – a once in a lifetime experience.

Tell me about the immersive quality of the piece?

The music heard during NDE feels as if you are in an incredible wall of sound, surrounding and immersing you completely. Some people spoke of music and light being entwined and together in equal breaths, inseparable if you will. It was this immersive quality I wanted to present. When described, the near death sounds and music felt like they had no beginning or end. To immerse the audience I have designed the sound to come from everywhere. The work is performed live in the round by the incredible Apartment House Ensemble (from the UK) and the sound is carried behind you through speakers. There is also a subtle responsive lighting installation, which was developed in collaboration with United Visual Artists (also from the UK). The lighting connects to the texts and subtly flutters, like the fluttering of an eyelid, a flickering of waking consciousness. It's very subtle and adds a unique immersive otherness to the performance.

Dead Symphony plays Arts Centre Melbourne, August 7-10