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100 Objects

Object #8. Coma Notes

29 June 2017

By Poumpak Charuprakorn (PhD in Composition)

My composition ‘Never-ending Torture’ for soprano and harp was composed for the event ‘Coma notes: music and poetry exploring consciousness and coma’, a collaborative project between Professor Jenny Kitzinger, Co-director of the Cardiff-York Coma and Disorders of Consciousness Research Centre, and Dr Arlene Sierra, Cardiff University School of Music. The event aimed to use music and poems to help convey the stories of patients in a coma and of their families who are facing a heartbreaking situation.

Before I began composing, Professor Kitzinger sent me a set of poems written by James Nash and inspired by the stories of people involved with coma and unconsciousness. She also sent me letters written by anonymous mothers of the patients, with license to adapt and use as lyrics for my piece. The letters struck me greatly and I decided to use some of them in the composition. Each letter is written from a different point of view. One of them is a mother’s letter to her 16-year-old son who has been in a vegetative state for many years. Another mother says that her son would now be ‘in peace’ if the doctor had not operated him. In yet another letter a mother says that the doctor did not care for what her son would have wanted for himself. The two letters that had the greatest impact on me, and became a main inspiration of the composition, describe the patient’s state as ‘a never-ending torture’ and beg to ‘end the suffering’.

My intention was not to tell the story in a direct, linear narrative, but rather to use music to express the misery of the families and patients involved through the creation of sounds that a patient in a coma might be experiencing, such as partially heard conversations and distorted sonorities. I obtained this by fragmenting the text and including barely comprehensible sounds sung by the soprano as well as various sound clusters created by harp.

The piece starts with the thunderous sound of a harp followed by fast gestures and the dramatic long crescendos of a soprano. Not all text is meant to be comprehensible. The soprano alternates wordless, non-lexical singing with fragments of text accompanied by clusters in the harp. What starts as a big wave of clusters later turns into a soft, sparse, pointillistic texture. The middle section features whispers and hums supported by a range of muffled sounds produced by the harp before a short, but intense, outburst of emotions returns. The composition appears to end with a mother’s quiet plea to ‘end’ her son’s ‘suffering’, but it is finally disrupted by another thunderous sound that perpetuates the idea of a ‘never-ending’ torture or even depict a final cry of anger and despair.

For a score, contact me via email.

To know more about Cardiff-York Universities Coma and Disorders of Consciousness Research Centre and its future events, visit the centre’s website.

Read more about the Coma Notes event.


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