Wordless Music Has The Most To Say
LISTEN AS YOU READ 👇🏼
I’ve never cried to song lyrics, my mind gets distracted by them. But I’ve stared at my bedroom’s white stucco walls with tears and snot juice riverines running down my blemished face as I've listen to film scores umpteen times.
The algorithm showed me a snippet of Matthew Webster’s orchestral album This Too Shall Pass back in December 2022. It’s a fantasy-adventure musical biography of surviving childhood abuse, living with complex-PTSD and severe bipolar disorder. Through a whimsical, How To Train Your Dragon-esque sound, the work boasts world-building mastery akin to my favourite 00s soundtracks.
Orchestral music feels like home to me. It’s a back rub, all encompassing and safe. I often think music was my first language - it helping a childhood of interoception difficulties and internalised emotions bubble up to the surface.
Soundtracks are my pacifier. Something to suck on (and suck the life out of). They give my brain enough stimulation to ease rumination and lower my heart rate. Finding a new score that my body responds to can determine the quality of my week.
They situate you inside something living. Unseeable but breathing. Somatic and curative.
But I’m not sure I have the words to defend it, that would involve speaking my second language. Words and speech have always felt like walking backwards. Whereas music faces me forwards.
I was not pop-literate growing up. When asked by other kids at lunch what music I liked never once did I name the Alexandre Desplat album I was currently marinating in. Instead, face scrunched in mock indecision I racked my brain for something believable, something I’d heard - taking longer than any authentic answer would require.
Thanks to Zimmer, TikTok sounds and Gen Z’s film literacy film scores are nudging the mainstream and I feel a toddler-aged stroppiness at having to share this music-thing of mine.
For the artist as well as the listener, Webster’s album is a prayer for a brighter future. First released in 2019, Webster re-wrote the album at the start of the pandemic. Then, following immense interest he launched a Kickstarter to record it with the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. It reached that goal within days and during post-production garnered the attention of Universal Studios.
This Too Shall Pass takes the listener through the pulse points of mental illness. It articulates the scope of torment within depressive episodes as well as the tingly euphoria when darkness finally relents. It’s both intensely visceral for someone who can relate and innately understandable for those who can’t.
Depicting an internal world through a somatic art form feels delightfully self-referential, demonstrating an impressive level of self-awareness. It inverts the ‘tortured artist’ trope - an idea that mental illness and self-destruction not only aid creativity but lends gravitas to the finished works. It’s a twisted fetishisation of psychological ill-health perpetuated by pseudo theory, select art history and the creative industries to this day.
How back to front a notion that fails to understand the very nature of the creative process and the contextual factors that can lead to (as Aristotle put it), an aura of insanity.
Humanity can be nosey, eyes leaching the sufferer. Voyeuristic consumers derive sardonic pleasure from works that ring the artist dry. With so much art, so much competing on our screens and in cultural discourse perhaps it’s no wonder those with a devastating emotional hook appear to earn mass attention. The artist who had a breakdown but somehow managed to assemble a impressive collection of work is deemed more interesting than the artist who released work when health allowed.
But Van Gogh didn’t produce his best work during depressive episodes nor do artists today. Artists in the peak of their careers have stepped back to prioritise their mental health, then reemerged better for it. The music industry especially is littered with examples of pressure cooker environments of expectation, success and fame resulting in individuals mental well-being dangerously deteriorating. And when artists are reduced to their output we are suggesting they are worthwhile as long as they can feed society’s insatiable appetite for misery.
There is something in western culture attached to individualism, The American Dream and social advancement, that demands suffering be a pre-requisite for taking up space. Yet ideally as a past-tense side-blurb to the finished work, ensuring viewer comfortability.
As such, the trauma narrative becomes an asset if you have the money and lifestyle to show you can look after yourself and are largely over it. It’s an idea that seems to apply to outward, able-bodied, uphill climbs - not excruciating torment that goes on between your ears, behind closed doors.
Suffering is part of the human condition of which creativity can overflow - but the discipline and motivation involved is not helped by it. Psychological ill-health made Webster’s album so tedious to complete. Mastering the final works has been a long protracted process. ECT affording him the stability to continue working - but it’s a trade made for a host of challenging side effects. Even still, severe mental illness has prevented Webster from composing or playing piano for months at a time.
Joy is intrinsic to imaginative work - something that is a lot easier to cultivate without the barriers of fatigue, memory loss, low self-esteem and most crucially losing pleasure in hobbies and interests. I think of the things I’ve dreamt of creating if constraints allowed and the things I’ve resigned to the bookshelf of youthful fantasy. I’m at my most productive when riding a high of flourishing mental and physical wellbeing; ideas shooting and taking form as easily as seeds in summer. Consistent financial stability, supportive relationships and felt community have also been crucial - not groundbreaking pillars unique to creative work.
Those who work in the arts cannot ignore their internal reality. It affects every part of their process. Therefore, taking care of it is of pronounced importance for the sustainability of a meaningful practise and one's best chance at demonstrating their full-potential.
Whether it’s an autism thing or a piano player thing - my hands are always moving. Melodies are pushed into my palms when I walk and tapped into my thighs as I drift off to sleep. Occasionally I’m struck with the ridiculousness of it. I think "I must be pretending" only to hear the Antiques Road Show theme song played into the steering wheel on the drive home.
I wonder if I’ll be like the family friend who in the last few years of life, filled his afternoons conducting classical music to himself in the four walls of his care room. Cognitive decline eroding social superficiality - loudening the wants and whims of the body.
When I first heard Webster talk about his work I was struck by his gentle assuredness in his ability. I’ve read PTSD is a form of acquired neurodivergence. When I read this, I think my brain smiled in recognition.
Webster’s work is worth every word - but you don’t usually hear such self-aware directness from the maker themselves. It’s a little jarring. Though I’m the same way with my food. Self taught, it’s so natural to me I don’t beat around the bush pretending not to know where the quality of it stands.
In This Too Shall Pass, the soaring sequences in Flying remind me that when trapped in suffocatingly dark rumination, music holds the ability to turn on the lights. When the clouds part after the relentless spiralling in Hunted, I hear the instant relief that can wash over a depressed system without logic or explanation as simply as turning a corner. And the closing bars of Never Alone, flood me with childlike reassurance that everything will be okay and that the future is hopeful you silly goose.
If this Vanity Fair article is anything to go by, the scoring industry is alarmingly exclusive. Composer Joe Kraemer in a series of tweets from 2021 shed light on how there are few film composers who wrote the tracks which they are applauded for. The majority are figureheads to a team of ghostwriters, putting in long hours for little pay to meet the relentless pace set by streaming services. A theme typified by the 2023 writers strikes.
Artfully matching sound to story puts soul in visual storytelling. It’s a highly skilled profession that takes time which production turnarounds don’t always allow.
While watching Ice Age as a teenager during one lazy end of term Friday afternoon, I had the socially useless yet intensely frustrating brainwave that film composers (what I thought) recycled their music. John Powell’s Log Moving from Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) is crafted around similar notes and lyrical phrasing later used in his Romantic Flight from How To Drain Your Dragon (2010). When watching summer blockbusters or films attracting award season speculation I can often pick the big name composer from a passage that’s reminiscent of one in another film. What I picked up on as a teen was likely these composer’s sound. A musical essence that their team are able to emulate and apply with efficient speed to new projects.
I get the sense that the inherently anti-capitalist process of music making doesn’t fit neatly into the demands set by big business Hollywood. The big names in film composing haven’t changed in the last 20 years - suggesting it’s time for new sounds, new formulas and new ways of marrying sound to story which are as unique as the individual(s) behind them.
For a Canberran who’s disability prevents them from mingling in the world they belong I can see the litany of barriers before them. I hope this articulation of where they are and where they’ve been becomes a way for others to see them and take them to the shores of a world they need to be apart of. Yes for our benefit but most importantly for his.
In speaking with Matthew I learn he lives with his parents who were complicit in his deeply traumatic childhood. He says he’s grateful for the roof over his head, for it be this or homelessness.
I wish we lived in a world where people could earn a living doing the job they can do and are good at; especially if that job is in the arts. The chronic devaluing of creative work in so-called Australia is a trajectory I’ve grown up with. It’s so built into my sense of self worth, but not so completely that I accept it to limit the potential of others.
Creative work has long been normalised to come from suboptimal conditions. Free labour earning the slim chance at advancing mentorships, prizes or grants is part and parcel of the industry. A baseline that lays the ground work for deteriorating mental health.
In many ways, it’s no surprise that the arts are so enamoured with work derived from struggle and depletion - for it’s a driving force of the industry itself.
I have hope that humanity’s propensity for destructive nosiness can be cured. That this misguided craving is actually for constructive and consensual vulnerability. Creative work that the artist can stand alongside and be met with the fullness of human compassion. The process be curative not depletive.
The reason we are drawn to such work may well be it flags something unacknowledged and ignored within all of us. Something masked, to meet the relentless demands of modern life.
But we shouldn’t only accept art that deep. To do so is to reject the textural expertise of the work itself and the infinite spectrum of artistic expression. Perhaps that would require utopian levels of cultural literacy outside the realms of current possibility - something I’ll hold stubborn optimism in eventuating.
It’s darkly poetic that though’s who’s inner world is so unsafe and terrifying, who’ve been forced to life’s fringes and still held on - hold an extraordinary ability to create worlds so safe and nurturing. Worlds which speak to something within all of us about the human condition.
Wordless music perhaps has the most to say and I hope This Too Shall Pass is Webster’s ticket to a livelihood in his industry.