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Dr Edward Wickham, with vocal ensemble The Clerks, is awarded a Wellcome Trust arts grant to explore musical hallucinations

last modified Sep 23, 2014 10:56 AM

Dr Wickham, Fellow and Director of Music at St Catharine’s College, is embarking on a project which examines the musical imagination, and the curious phenomenon of musical hallucinations.

With the help of a Wellcome Trust grant, he and a team of scientists from the Hearing the Voice project at Durham University, will be presenting a new musical programme – Phantom Voices: A History of Music in Seven Hauntings – which attempts to capture some of the experience of musical hallucinations, while reflecting on the ways we imagine music.  The programme will launch at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on Friday 31 October, in a performance at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; and will coincide with the publication by Hearing the Voice of a large-scale, online questionnaire.  

The musical programme has been developed by Dr Wickham with Gramophone Award-winning ensemble The Clerks, as a follow up their cutting-edge music/science project Tales from Babel; and with composer Christopher Fox.  

‘Phantom Voices is first and foremost a concert programme,’ says Edward Wickham; ‘an immersive musical experience with music by our long-standing collaborator Christopher Fox. It melds together live and pre-recorded elements to give some sense of what it is like to experience musical hallucinations.’

Composer Christopher Fox explains: ‘The audience will be led through a series of musical ‘hauntings’, a sequence of interrelated songs and motets which take us from the present back into the Middle Ages, via Bach, Heinrich Isaac, bluegrass and folk song. Like unpacking Russian dolls, each new element in the music will reveal itself as a reinvention of something we already know.  At the same time, the audience will also be haunted more directly, by pre-recorded speech, music and sampled noises, to evoke the experience of voice and music hallucinations.’   

The Clerks vocal ensemble, known both for their pioneering interpretations of Medieval and Renaissance music and their challenging, genre-breaking collaborations, have again received the financial support of The Wellcome Trust, and are working on this project with Charles Fernyhough of Durham University and the Hearing the Voice project.

‘Hearing the Voice is all about understanding the huge variety of ways in which people hear voices in the absence of any speaker,’ says Professor Fernyhough.  ‘Voice-hearing is usually associated with serious mental illness; we are discovering that it can happen in all sorts of different circumstances, to all sorts of people.  What we are hoping to do with Phantom Voices is to find out whether the conditions that provoke musical hallucinations are similar to those associated with voice-hearing; and also to improve our understanding of how we remember and imagine music in our heads.’

To achieve this, the project is being developed through conversations with voice-hearers and those who experience musical hallucinations, including a recent ‘Hearing the Voice’ conference which focussed specifically on the phenomenon.

The full concert programme will launch at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on Friday 31 October, in the evocative surroundings of the Museum for Archaeology and Anthropology, followed by  the Spitalfields Winter Festival on 15 December.