Keaton Henson: Anxiety in Various Media 2

Keaton Henson’s battle with anxiety, which has severely affected his ability to perform live, is no secret. Tonight Six Lethargies, his new composition for string orchestra which explores themes of depression and empathy, receives its premiere at the Barbican in London. But the acclaimed musician, whose work as a visual artist is already well known, has also been exploring the same themes in paint. He shares some of the work with Elephant here.

Keaton Henson portrait
This image: the artist. Above: Depression by Keaton Henson

How long have you been painting? Can your paintings convey things that your music can’t?

I have been painting for as long as I can remember. It was never something I considered myself massively good at but I just always felt better with paint under my fingernails than anything else. Before music drawing was how I made my living. but I have always seen the two practices as completely distinct. I think painting and visual art can say things music can’t as much as vice versa. I think I use visual art much more as a tool for storytelling, whereas music is more guttural and based on feeling.

Keaton Henson: Anxiety in Various Media
Sketch towards Six Lethargies

As a composer you don’t use conventional musical notation. Can you tell me about your process in that regard?

As a composer my process is rather convoluted and backwards, but I find it keeps me the right amount of “naïve” to create the work I aim to. I would usually start with some themes and ideas which I find using mostly piano, but I will then map out the work visually using drawings and sketches that visually represent what I want the piece to look like. I can then cut these up and rearrange them physically to build an overall reference to work from. From there it is essentially just building layers of piano parts and composing that way, referring constantly to the drawings and using them to keep me on track. The files for each piece as lots of Midi notation is then given to an orchestrator who writes it for orchestra.

Your paintings bear titles indicative of various emotional states: Chaos, Falling, etc. Are these used as notation for the musicians too?

Those are actually the titles and subtitles of each movement of the Six Lethargies. The paintings were more for myself and (although less so) the arranger. They are just abstract expressionistic developments of the initial sketches, intended to give me a more solid guide of colours and textures to try and work into the music. The strokes and lines often translate loosely into accents and movements in the music too.

What is shown in the images marked “Sketch”? How do the musicians work with them?

Again the musicians won’t necessarily see these. They are for me to build from, like a blueprint or storyboard based on a concept or feeling.

This image: Sketch towards Six Lethargies. Above: Falling

The idea of Six Lethargies is in part to convey feelings of anxiety and depression. At the performance at the Barbican you’ll be monitoring biometrically the responses of some audience members. What do you think the results of that monitoring might suggest?

As a musician and artist I have become fascinated during my career by the relationship between how I am feeling and how the audience feels when listening to my work about it. The aim of the biometric side of Six Lethargies is to not only see how much the audience physiologically responds in kind, but also to create a sort of positive feedback loop whereby their anxiety levels control the lighting. As far as the results, I guess I just hope to see data that somewhat mirrors my sketches and plans for the piece.



Keaton Henson: Six Lethargies

Performed by the Britten Sinfonia, Friday 20 July at Barbican Hall, London

Keaton Henson: Anxiety in Various Media 3