In his book Hallucinations, the acclaimed British-American neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles a wide range of hallucinatory conditions reported by his patients throughout his illustrious career. I have chosen five of those cases as the inspiration for this concerto, creating an imaginary musical representation of each mental state. These particular hallucinations were comparatively benign for those who experienced them, and in some cases were positively welcome.
Hallucinations are fascinating phenomena - instantaneous random inventions of our brains overlaid on the sensation of common reality and indistinguishable from it. Many of us will experience them in some way during our lives. When we sleep for example, we are aware that our brain is in free flight and its muddled dream scenarios are not real. On the edges of sleep however, we can confuse random mental impressions with reality, and are hallucinating. A typical example is hearing one’s name spoken by an unknown person; another is when the tail end of a dream impinges on perceived reality.
Sufferers of brain damage or a range of neurological disorders regularly hallucinate. Others without mental illness but under great stress or fatigue can also hallucinate, as of course can those who use psychotropic drugs. It is this bridge between the real world and some of the surprising ways in which our brains interpret the mundane reality around us that I find endlessly fascinating.
Carl Vine, February 2016
Five Hallucinations was co-commissioned by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and by Kim Williams AM, Geoff Ainsworth & Johanna Featherstone for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It will be first performed by Michael Mulcahy and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan at the Chicago Symphony Center on October 6th 2016. It was written for and is dedicated to trombonist Michael Mulcahy.
- I smell the unicorn
One of Sacks’ patients frequently hears complete sentences spoken outside herself while drifting off to sleep. The phrases have no special personal meaning, and bear witness to the extraordinary and unexpected creative power of the brain as it freewheels into sleep.
- The lemonade speaks
Hearing voices is a hallucination common in schizophrenia, especially as threats or curses. Less threatening versions may be experienced by just about anybody on waking up, either disembodied or from inanimate objects. In this case an effervescent beverage has discovered the power of speech. What it says is not clear.
- Mama wants some cookies
Sufferers of Charles Bonnet Syndrome often hallucinate text or other visual material superimposed repeatedly across their entire field of vision. The sentence “Mama wants some cookies” is actually another auditory hallucination like “unicorn” above, but I’ve used some poetic licence to imagine that incongruous sentence as text filling one’s entire visible world.
- The Doppelgänger
Many people have experienced the sense of being followed when it is clear that it isn’t happening. A special version of this hallucination is the sense of being followed by oneself - a permanent mirror aping one’s every motion, and in extreme cases affording such close identification with the simulacrum that the individual swaps places with the Doppelgänger.
- Hexagons in pink
Hallucinating repeated visual patterns like arabesques and hexagons is common to many conditions including extreme migraine and the use of psychotropic drugs, and can be detected, for instance, in the repetitive decorations on Persian rugs. Losing control of one’s visible universe to a randomly reinvented geometrical animation can be disturbing, but it can also be pleasurable.