Celia Harper - Composer

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By Celia Harper

Music can take many forms and have many different effects on us: it can invigorate or calm us, arouse or amuse us, call us to arms, inspire us and lift up our spirits. From shamans to Hildegard von Bingen, Allegri to Arvo Part it has been used to move us into these and other altered states of consciousness. The popularity of articles, books and courses on chanting, drumming, toning and harmonic overtoning, all of which encourage people to make and connect with their own particular sound, points towards a groundswell recognizing the health-giving and empowering effects of making music.

Certainly, learning to sing properly can have profound effects not only on posture, breathing, self-expression and release of emotions, but also on our sense of community and our re-connection with the earth, ourselves and others. It can bring us joy in the sheer physical pleasure of vocalizing and at best can be called a vocal self-massage.

Research into the effects of some classical music - Mozart in particular - would seem to show a huge area of potential healing power which merits further scientific investigation.

Ironically, I was forced into a reassessment of the healing powers of music some years ago when the stresses and strains of my life as a performing musician caused physical injury and I was unable to play any of my instruments (harpsichord, chamber organ and early harp) for a year. I sang out of sheer frustration and found such a sense of creative release that I started to compose. Having taken both degrees of Reiki (which is known to enhance creativity) I found myself writing more and more contemplative music, which was deeply influenced by my love and knowledge of the baroque era in particular, by early vocal music and also by the music of my Celtic roots.

When my injuries healed, several professional colleagues and I formed a group playing and singing my music to patients in hospices and day care centres. I thought that if this music had helped me through a difficult period in my life, perhaps it could help others. This seemed to be so, and after many requests we made our first CD which was called "Chameleon."

Thinking about how music had helped me and was obviously helping others made me look in more depth at what exactly was going on here.

And what was the difference between the active playing/singing experience and the more passive listening?

Monteverdi (1567-1643), the greatest composer bridging Renaissance and early baroque, was influenced by Ficino, a seventeenth century musician, philosopher and writer on mysticism and music, who regarded music as an important aid in the practice of astrological magic and medicine. The mythical Orfeo was famed for his amazing musical talent. He performed miracles with his voice and lyre, taming wild beasts and moving trees with his sound. Monteverdi took this most famous of musical legends for his first opera, and in Act Three, Orfeo descends to the underworld to reclaim his beloved Euridice who has been killed by a snake. With the God Apollo's help, he charms and lulls Charon – ferryman of the Styx - to sleep. "Heaven" comes to Orfeo's aid through the use of music. The crux of Orfeo's literally enchanting song is accompanied by the magical sounds of early double harp, and then by strings and organ playing "pian piano" - as quietly as possible. His voice and the instruments weave a supernatural musical spell so that he can climb unnoticed into Charon's boat and cross the river Styx into the regions of hell, to plead with Pluto to return his beloved to the land of the living (echoes of shamanism here). If music can even lull Charon to sleep, what can it not do for us mere mortals? Like great literature it can transport us to other realms with cathartic effect.

But how exactly does music "soothe the savage breast" and allow us to feel safe enough to sink into a deeply relaxed alpha state? The more I thought about it all, the more clues appeared. Modern life appears to be getting more and more stressful as we struggle to do too much and deal with the onslaught of excessive external stimuli. We rarely allow ourselves time to just "be" rather than to "do". Music encourages us to take time out, where we can drop the continual external and internal chatter.

When we really listen to music we are brought into an attentive present, into an attitude of open-ness and receptiveness and a non-judgemental space. This can change how we listen to ourselves and to others and we can re-learn to listen with innocence, as a small child does, and as we did before criticism taught us to listen defensively.Listening can make us aware of the power of silence. The silence of rhythmic rests and the silence of the "breath" between phrases is similar to the "gap", the space between thoughts when we are able to centre down and quieten the mind in meditation.

But what is there in music itself which is calming for us?
I believe that there are several factors at work, particularly in music written in the period between c1600-1800, roughly the baroque and classical eras. I'm looking at this period because it's my field and also because of its unprecedented popularity in the last decade.

  1. The music has a secure and safe form and structure, whether it's a simple strophic or rondo form (ABACA) where the main theme recurs at regular intervals, or whether it's a more complex structure like sonata form. Although themes are developed, all the threads are eventually pulled together and tied and tunes are repeated as we "come home" to the tonic key. Humans respond to the safety of recognizing fixed points and appreciate freedom within a certain framework, which this music reflects.
  2. Standard reiterated harmonic sequences such as ground bass, canon and dominant/tonic pedals likewise provide an inherent stability to which we relate, in the same way that drones in folk music keep us grounded and linked to the lowest note of the musical scale. Musically this is a metaphor for feeling ourselves to be in tune with nature and part of the earth, "grounded" and safe.
  3. Many melodies are relatively simple and therefore memorable and reproducible, so we can sing them ourselves and re-induce a feeling of repose.
  4. Dissonance always resolves into consonance in baroque and classical music, and in our chaotic world music demonstrates to us the physical, mental and spiritual benefit of resolution after conflict and struggle.
  5. Certain repeating harmonic progressions such as circles of fifths, and some melodic suspensions and falling phrases "tear at our heartstrings" and allow deeply held emotions to surface and dissipate safely. This is one of the reasons why we may suddenly find ourselves in tears without knowing why.

These thoughts are a mere glimpse through the window into one part of a vast musical universe.

From the start of my composing career, I intuitively chose to write for voice, violin and harp, feeling that healing intent can best be carried on high voice and acoustic instruments. The counter-tenor voice, particularly in such accomplished and spiritually connected colleagues as Michael Chance and Robin Blaze, has an ethereal beauty and other-worldly aspect, especially when combined with the high vibrations of gut-strung violin, queen of the stringed instruments. The double harp, which I play, is also gut strung and softly supports the voices. It is a wonderfully expressive instrument and can mirror the emotions of the voice just as it did in Monteverdi's day, when it was primarily used for accompanying solo voice. Its sound is non-specific in period, and has echoes of far distant times and places, unlike its modern louder orchestral counterpart.
I also use quartz crystal and Tibetan bowls as drone instruments (as well as violin), particularly for some lullabies, accompanying the warm maternal sound of our soprano, Jacqueline Evill. Elizabeth Wilcock, renowned baroque violinist who is also a trained music therapist, plays violin and bowls and I also play bells.
I usually set Latin Marian texts, for their sense of timelessness and simplicity and because they act like a mantra, calling down all the aspirations and prayers of the centuries. Sometimes I write words as well as music - folksong-like texts about the beauty of nature, or simple lullabies.

In our work in hospices and beyond, we have seen a stroke patient who, holding a Tibetan bowl, felt vibrations all the way up her "useless" arm, and a cerebral palsy patient who kept stiller than her helper had ever known her. Some of the music seems to release layers of pent-up emotions and results of a scientific research study1 we took part in at Bristol Cancer Help Centre (using both live and recorded music) showed that listeners not only felt more relaxed and better about themselves, but also experienced significantly raised levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (an indicator of immune status) and a reduction in cortisol levels (a stress hormone). Some comments about the music we played from our "Chameleon" CD have been:

"The power of the music uplifted the spirit"
"I felt totally at peace"
"The power of the music to disarm and enter people, to lift up their spirits and to make them whole is amazing"
"I was immersed in the sound and went off somewhere"

All these results make me think that more scientific research is needed into all kinds of music. A whole new world may open up.
Our experiences so far are leading us to experiment with new ways of sending healing intent on our sound, and we conclude that music written with structure and simplicity and performed with beauty of sound can have a profound effect on body as well as mind and spirit.

The Bristol Cancer Help Centre study would appear to support this premise.
Dr Leslie Bunt who initiated the Bristol study plans to undertake more extensive research with us, and we hope also to be involved in looking at some specific benefits of music in pregnancy.

Our group performs under the name of Sulis, called after the British goddess of healing waters. (Aqua Sulis was the Roman name for Bath). We now give many fundraising concerts for charity and aim to provide our audience with a musical space for personal reflection, rather than to give a conventional concert. If you would like further information about Sulis, visit our website at www.sulismusic.com where you can hear excerpts from both the "Chameleon" CD and our new recording: "Sitting on the windowsill of Heaven" (which includes a track written in the wake of the Dunblane massacre.) You can read more about our work and also order CDs on line if you wish. If you prefer you can order CDs by telephoning 020 8749 3365.

1. Burns SJI, Harbuz MS, Hucklebridge F and Bunt L. A Pilot Study into the Therapeutic Effects of Music Therapy at a Cancer Help Centre. Alternative Therapies, January 2001, Vol.7, No.1

This article was originally published in Positive Health Magazine Issue 68 (September 2001)

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© Celia Harper 2009. All rights reserved.