KEATON HENSON- ‘Six Lethargies’

Keaton Henson is best known as one of the most solemn singer songwriters of recent years. His guitar gently weeps. His voice will break your heart. ‘Six Lethargies’, composed by Henson but performed by The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, might be a surprise then. There is no guitar. There is no voice. There aren’t really songs. Instead there are minimalist melodies, slow tempo strings, uneasy silences, and explorations of “mental illness, trauma, and empathy”. 

It’s not without precedent though. While this is longer form, more abstract, and less melodic, Henson’s 2014 album, ‘Romantic Works’, ably proved how compelling he could be without uttering a word. Ten-minute opener, ‘Initium’ revels in the slowest of builds, ‘Lament’ is reminiscent of both modern composers like Max Richter and the more traditional but no less stirring work of James Horner, and ‘Trauma/In Chao’ is a frankly terrifying lesson in anxiety- the music of footsteps in the darkness and breath on the back of your neck. 

When it was first played live, ‘Six Lethargies’ was presented as a multi-sensory piece in which audience members were wired up to biometric monitors and the real-time lighting of the show changed with their observed mood. It came advertised with the question, “If I write how it feels to me, will it make you feel the same?” At home, or in the car, or wherever you hear this, far removed from that show, that all sounds a bit silly. The music here works incredibly well without a light show overhead or a clip on your finger.

Now, perhaps I don’t know enough about classical music. I don’t know if this is the equivalent of someone who normally works in a phone shop going on TV and belting out an apparently impressive opera number, only for professionals to declare that it sounds amateur after all. I don’t know if ‘Six Lethargies’ sounds “right”. But I do know how it feels. And it feels fascinating, immersive, and complete. 

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