It’s safe to say that healthcare has been unavoidably at the forefront of most of our minds for the past two years – and for hardly positive reasons. The continuing global COVID pandemic has dramatically shifted our relationship with our minds and bodies, whether it be the precautions we take to stay safe or the way that our home offices psychologically distort working patterns. Even before an overburdened NHS and frightening statistics about death tolls, it’s also safe to say most of us didn’t have positive associations with hospitals, either. For all these reasons, and though not originally intended, Tŷ Cerdd Records’ Cynefin album strikes a poignant chord.
Cynefin, which means on a basic translation level, ‘habitat’ in Welsh, is a project that connects art, community and wellbeing in surprising and interesting ways. Tŷ Cerdd’s mission is to bring the music of Wales to as wide an audience as possible. For Cynefin, however, that mission started life on a much more localised level. Working in collaboration with Studio Response – a Wales-based practice that works with site-specific artists in public spaces – the idea was to install music and sound installations in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board’s new Grange University Hospital in Llanfrechfa. More specifically still, in the hospital’s multi-faith chapel. And not just any hospital – a critical care one at that.
For lead music artist Jo Thomas, an award-winning electronic composer well-practised in creating public sound installations, the chance to work in such a venue was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “I’ve never worked in a hospital before but I’ve always wanted to work on a piece of public art in [one]. I just think hospitals are incredible places. I have multiple disabilities and I’ve been spent time in hospitals at different times of my life. I’ve thought about having music in the places I’ve spent time in. It would have been a really good way of just thinking outside of what I was worried about when I was there.”
The brief that Jo and the six other artists tapped for the Cynefin project, whom Jo also mentored, was to bring “support and solace” to the chapel’s visitors. Central to that was also direct engagement with members of the community in order to authentically reflect the site and its people.
“It really was to be a celebration – a celebration of life.”Jo Thomas
This presented another complication: getting a project off the ground that required multiple artists with varying levels of experience in designing sound art – and during a time (the summer of 2020) when that ‘direct engagement’ remit would be at its most limiting. “It was a massive learning curve,” Deborah Keyser, Director of Tŷ Cerdd explains, “and one that’s really changed [the artists’] practice because they now have skills – digital skills – and the ability to create electroacoustic work [when] before they were just acoustic folk artists. So that’s been a real learning curve. And that was because of COVID; it made it imperative everything was done in your own studio and in your own space.”
As well as contending with lockdown conditions, there’s the idea of drawing artistic inspiration from an environment we closely associate with sterility. However, the sites and people that artists like Jo studied paint a picture of a building with a storied, creative past – a heritage that remains active to this day. Jo’s piece, Sketch Of Nature, which opens the album, takes its name from a poem in a book called Old Tyme, published in 1861 by Elizabeth Harcourt Mitchell, who lived in the old Grange next to the new building.
More contemporary subject matter came from the hospital’s walled garden, with Jo composing each movement of her instrumental composition around its various natural elements, from the tinkling rotation of water in the fountain to the collection of rocks from around Wales, and, after speaking to one of the volunteers at the hospital, the mediative space under the cherry tree.
Other tracks on the Cynefin album follow suit in both name and texture (Ashley John Long’s Edau Bywyd (Threads Of Life), for instance); a diverse mixture of genres and techniques wound together by a feeling of slowly moving through a particular thought or feeling. It’s contemplative, but not the kind of soulless ambience you might hear in a chain coffee branch or spa. Rather than simply existing as background noise to fill a particular void – physical or otherwise – there’s space for the listener to dwell within the music without it feeling obtrusive.
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This brings us back to those negative hospital associations. In a critical care facility, it’s easy to imagine from the outside that sickness and death are oppressing overhangs, even in a place like a chapel, which is designed to be a sanctuary for comfort and hope within a hive of complicated medical activity. Were the artists involved instructed to keep things light?
“I think that was something I was a bit worried about,” Deborah reflects, “because we had to be really quite clear about what the intention was behind it and actually, the artists responded really appropriately. So we didn’t have to do any of that nudging. Some of them may have had their technical difficulties getting there and learning how massive the learning curve was but all of them really understood those wonderful things about just being in a space and being calm and peaceful; being inspired as well as being comforted.”
As someone with a more pragmatic outlook on healthcare, avoiding maudlin themes felt just as important to Jo when working on the music. “Whenever I’m in the hospital, I’m in there to get well. I did have a conversation with Jan [the hospital gardener] and she said she didn’t want that little garden to be a garden of remembrance, which there is a tendency to do sometimes because it is a palliative hospital, and with those kinds of gardens, you have painful memories, and she absolutely didn’t want that. She didn’t want it to be sad; she wanted it to be a celebration.
“Working on the music was quite a serious time, quite a difficult time, and I did find myself falling into quite sad tones. And I just had to really be conscious that actually, I didn’t want that. It really was to be a celebration – a celebration of life. And I think that it’s harder sometimes to write happiness.”
What began as an audio-only venture tied to a particular place soon started to grow into other mediums and locations, including QR codes at hospital bedsides in the critical care unit to bring the soothing sounds of the chapel to those in need. Following this, six artworks have been created to go up on the Grange’s walls, each inspired by the individual pieces. From there, the idea to export the project to those beyond even that seemed like a “no brainer” to Deborah, and thus, Cynefin now exists in album form, allowing music composed under very specific circumstances for a very specific place to become more transformative.
“It can mean so many different things to so many different people,” Deborah continues on the subject of what listeners around the world might get out of Cynefin. “I know there will be some of those original intentions around solace, life affirmation and comfort. But I think there’s something for different audiences in there. There’s electronic experimental work, there’s folk-inspired work. There’s this extraordinary piece that involves rap in Welsh, Bengali and English. So I think there’s a real spread.
“I also hope that there will be arts and health benefits to this beyond the project so that this can help workers in other hospitals. I think there’s something sort of imperative at the beginning of the project that absolutely comes out through [the music]. I think, actually, the pandemic has been part of the impulse to release [the album] because it feels like there’s a need for this sort of work at the moment more than ever. I mean, I see many fewer people and spend a lot more of my time on my own, in my own space. This feels like a really good work for that sort of context.”
Cynefin from Tŷ Cerdd Records is available now. Info here.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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