Broadcaster explores how ‘bleak and drab’ music can be a lifeline for people with mental illness
Stephen Johnson: award-winning BBC broadcaster.
“Was he an animal, that music could move him so?” This line from Franz Kafka’s novel Metamorphosis sees its protagonist, a man who has transformed into a giant beetle, feeling moved by violin music.
According to Stephen Johnson, an award-winning BBC broadcaster who has bipolar disorder, Kafka’s words encapsulate his own relationship with music. “How can you be this terrible creature if music can make you feel like this?” he asked. As a youth, Johnson found comfort in Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky – music that can be “black, violent, drab and bleak”.
“There was a time in my life, certainly in my teens, when I felt more stable and safe listening to music like that than in almost any other context,” he said.
On long solitary walks and cycle rides Johnson would recreate his favourite music in his head. At the time he didn’t realise that he was suffering from a mental illness.
Finding contentment or happiness in dark music was a paradox, he realised. Seeking answers, he travelled to Russia where he made a radio documentary exploring how Shostakovich, the composer of some of the most despairing music ever written, was a lifeline for those who had lived through Stalinism.
It was “deeply affirmative” for people to hear their own worst fears and anxieties transformed by a great composer into something “magnificent”, he discovered. “I’ve felt something like that too,” he said, adding that other people have had similar experiences.
“[The] music seems to empathise with you and turn your dreadful feelings into something wonderful.”
Johnson was diagnosed as bi-polar at the age of 21, in university. “I didn’t really accept it until I was in my mid-40s and had a really terrible episode,” he said.
The ups could feel like “an overdose of magic mushrooms”, as he went without sleep and got an almost “religious” high, obsessed with ideas and talking fast. In the highs everything seemed to make perfect sense, then the downs felt like falling down an elevator shaft. “You’re in a very dark and frightened place. There is a terrible, apprehensive feeling of dread,” he said.
Music is therapeutic because it “changes your relationship to your own feelings whereby you’re no longer dominated by them,” he said.
Stephen Johnson will join the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor Alan Buribayev to go ‘inside the music’ of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Hindemith’s Violin Concerto with soloist Alan Smale. NCH, November 3rd, 3pm. Booking 01 417 0000 or nch.ie