'Unbelievably beautiful' - Keaton Henson's orchestral album 'Six Lethargies'

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There's been fulsome critical praise for Keaton Henson's new album 'Six Lethargies' - his first orchestral release. The Mercury KX recording follows the work's premiere by Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican in 2018 and subsequent performances in Dublin and Sydney.
 
His Six Lethargies is a six-movement, 65-minute work for string orchestra that explores themes and issues surrounding anxiety and depression.  Henson’s struggles with depression are well-documented and, in addressing the issue head-on with his largest composition to date, he has told his story through the music allowing the orchestra to be his voice, as well as providing human connection and insight into the condition.  
‘The music itself is entirely orchestral. Opening with swirling, cyclical violins, Initum is akin to falling down a rabbit hole, but with Henson at our side. Right into the belly of the beast we’re drawn, with volume and vigour, until calmly we’re deposited into the waiting arms of The Falling, a careful tiptoe along the edge many of us have contemplated that descends into a frantic anxiety dream. Trauma / In Chao underlines the relentless, background drone of surviving trauma – building to an explosive finale.
We drop further still into Unease Concerto – Cadenza, aptly named as jumpy violins alone send skin shivers ablaze, and on into Unease Concerto, which scoops up these violins and integrates them into a euphoric exchange of this nervous energy, becoming a beautiful orchestral piece which then returns us back to unease just as quickly. Lament is our lullaby, carefully moving into the final track Breathing Out, during which slight violins help us expel the narrative demons we have fought.
The first outing for the album, at the Barbican, involved wiring up the audience to a set of lights that changed based on their emotions. Thus, they became the show and Henson, watching carefully from the audience, opened up Six Lethargies to reactions outside his own.
That’s the ultimate stroke of genius behind the music on this album. It’s immersion; equal parts exorcism and catharsis. A scream in a crowd and a yell into the darkness. It’s an expression of what we should all do with our trauma, which is open up, share, and react to each other with the greatest of support. And that is so unbelievably beautiful, we’re left at the end with a single phrase. Thanks, Keaton. Thanks.’
musicOMH (Nicoletta Wylde), 4 November 2019
‘It's an expansive seven-movement suite for string orchestra and solo violin, and buying the vinyl double album gives us a chance to look closely at extracts from Henson's graphic score. He's no dilettante: pretty much every element and direction is notated, bar the names of the actual notes, with little left to chance. The music is predominantly slow-moving and introspective. Some audience members at the 2018 premiere were connected to skin response monitors, their anxiety levels informing “the colour and intensity of the venue’s lighting rig”. Scriabin would have approved.
My own anxiety levels remained steady through much of the work, Henson's use of tonality and penchant for rich, slow moving chords creating something that's often more calming than alarming. Vaughan Williams and Barber are audible reference points, and you suspect he's also listened to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. The violent outburst at the close of the second movement made me jump, and violinist Thomas Gould is superb in the fourth and fifth sections. The finale, “Breathing Out”, brings things to a peaceful close. It's rather good – as mentioned, buy the LPs rather than the download. Surfaces on my copy were pristine, and Henson's sleeve art is cool.
The Arts Desk (Graham Rickson), 9 November 2019
‘It’s delicate, elegant, haunting and masterful all at once…’
Cool Hunting (Evan Malachosky), 2 October 2019
‘Those who have enjoyed the music of Keaton Henson over the past decade may be surprised to discover his instrumental side; he’s known for tender ballads sung in the Damien Rice style, his voice a reed perpetually on the verge of breaking.  But subtract the vocals from Kindly Now and one is left with empathetic piano and melancholic orchestra (especially on closing track “How Could I Have Known”), powerful enough to stand on their own.This is what occurs on Six Lethargies, which began its public life in an unusual manner.  Some of the premiere attendees were attached to sensors to measure whether they might feel the same emotions as Henson felt while writing his music…
Not that Henson is trying to depress his audience.  He’s searching for a shared reception, triggered by music.  Might Six Lethargies make listeners sad?  Might it provoke anxiety?  And if not, might it at least produce a feeling of compassion?  The more anxious public listeners felt, the more the lights reacted to them, which might have produced a feedback loop; no such phobia is present at home, or wherever the album is played…
Most Western ears will receive it in a spectrum that stretches from regret to awe…
To these ears, the album is not depressing, but lovely.  While it may have risen from depression, the fact of its existence is proof that the artist was anything but lethargic, even if the writing took months to complete.  The music is also a comfort, a blanket of empathy one might draw around the shoulders.  The sluggish tempo and rising volume of “Initium” give way to quickening passages in “The Falling,” which leaps from moments of silence to near-cacophony.  The closing minutes contain references to Penderecki’s staccato timbres, matched by the smoothness of soothing strings.  Which emotion will win?  In this case, there is an answer.  The album’s most disturbing moment arrives at the end of this movement, as a chord grows for fifteen seconds before its head is chopped off.  After this, a longer-than-usual pause between tracks, followed by the hive-like buzz of “Unease Concerto – Credenza.”  The mind is a whirl of fierce emotions.
And yet, the artist will not return to this lopping, which causes one to examine the sequencing.  The hardest part is over, the dragon faced, the leap taken, the loss survived.  After this, life goes on.  The album will continue to wrestle with unease; it’s not a Disney ending.  Then again, Disney endings are not even what they used to be, as sequels challenge the idea of happy-ever-after.  Henson isn’t happy-ever-after, but he’s prolific, charting emotion first with words, then with music, calling even silence to his palette.  Six Lethargies may be uneasy listening, but it reflects the fragility of the human psyche, communicating its central message without words:  you are not alone.’
A Closer Listen (Richard Allen), 8 November 2019