Interview: Jocelyn Pook on neurosis, squats and government cutsby Michaela Carroll 28th March 2013 09:20:27
Mental illness is not something you associate with classical music. A Birmingham girl and former squatter with a schizophrenic mother not the typical background of one of the world's best-known contemporary composers. With an Olivier, BASCA British Composer Award and BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations under her belt, Jocelyn Pook is definitely someone who defies stereotypes.
But despite having a few issues with sound quality and worrying when she would get her cup of tea, Jocelyn quickly became a warm and real person - the joy in her voice as she talks about her music turns her from The Intimidating Woman From Eyes Wide Shut to lovely Jocelyn Pook. Her pride that she used to live in a squat and outrage at government cuts - in particular the cost of university education - immediately banishes her from the white, middle class stereotype, and humanises a woman who could easily wield her reputation over those around her.
Whilst Pook presents herself as a straightforward and accessible woman, however, her work says otherwise. Her latest work is H7steria; a four-hour collaboration with the BBC Concert Orchestra, which highlights the influence on her composing that living with three generations of women with mental illness has had.
Whilst she hasn't personally experienced mental illness bar some "neurosis - like people get a mild cold or flu", the openness of her mother, author of In Two Minds, about her own schizophrenia inspired Jocelyn to explore the topic further. "I had the idea for a long time; it was just a case of having the chance to express it. Although we (the BBC Concert Orchestra and Pook) had been discussing working together for a long time, it had never been right for one or the other. Then they approached me with H7steria and it just fit."
Jocelyn's contribution to the programme, Hearing Voices, has received almost unanimous praise, with the Financial Times saying she "pitched her score at the point where it complements, but does not crush, these fragile memories". The memories themselves are the narratives of five women, one being Pook's great aunt, which are recounted through recordings and the soaring voice of Melanie Pappenheim. With costumes of institutional white coats and feelings of mental illness being pulsed through the 51 piece orchestra; OCD turning into sharp, visceral blasts by the brass and psychosis embodied in an unexpected boogie rhythm, H7steria is very much like Pook; completely against the norm.
Hearing Voices has received international accolades for its uncompromising emotion, with The Telegraph calling it "a marvel of quiet and far-from-hysterical intensity". Her work has never shied away from the
extreme - a trait she finds "emotionally draining sometimes. You learn to avoid certain things at times - what is appropriate to explore and what isn't. Once you learn that, it becomes a fairly cathartic process."
Pook believes there is still a stigma attached to mental illness: "We've got a long way to go in terms of how people with mental illnesses are treated, both in therapy and in society. What used to be called "hysteria" a century ago is now seen in a completely new light. I'm fascinated how psychosis is so often associated with creativity. Artists and composers down the ages have been afflicted with numerous mental disorders. Perhaps creative spirits are merely more receptive and in a sense reflect, like litmus paper, the greater illnesses in society."
When I asked if her use of mental illness had increased her profile, as it seems to with rock stars and artists, her voice took on a cynical edge and eyebrow arched slightly: "The thing with classical music is there is no obvious topic. People, journalists, see a theme they can latch onto and they take it."
She continues: "People like Daniel Barenboim and Charles Hazelwood with the Para-Orchestra offer a topic for people to get into and it means more people can get into classical music; it's less rarefied than people assume".
The success and international accolades may not have happened had Jocelyn been born 30 years later. Her soft accent and gentle demeanor belie a tough upbringing in Birmingham that would have nowadays stopped her studying at the Guildhall. "It just wouldn't have been possible if we had the huge debt that students are saddled with - when you're brought up in a family like that, you don't have the mentality to take on this massive burden. It's terribly worrying."
Jocelyn survived by living in the legalised squats and short-term housing that have almost entirely disappeared. She believes affordable housing to be crucial to artistic success - "You need to be going to auditions and practicing every single day; if you have to get a job, you won't be able to focus and then a career in music becomes impossible. I'm frankly appalled by house prices at the moment, it's completely prohibitive."
It isn't just the new financial strains on students that worry Jocelyn, however. The government's proposal to introduce Baccalaureate style exams instead of A-Levels will remove arts subjects from secondary education, something that she finds "dreadful". "I do what I do because of school," she says. "I played school violins; I had free music lessons. You can't take that away from people."