Manual Adjustment

A Soundtrack To The DSM-IV
USA ONR 011 CD (2011)

Billed as ‘A Soundtrack to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’, this here disc presenteth a rotating cast of musicians improvising soundtracks to selected clinical categorisations in order to, supposedly, in each case “produce convincing interpretation of this disorder”. In other words, the musicians utilise an approach sometimes associated with ‘freedom’ in order to achieve a musical investigation of a number of non-standard states of mind associated with severe mental distress as they are defined and delineated by a key text of the American Psychiatric Association. Hmm.

Psychiatry and the definition of ‘mental disorders’ (to use the manual’s own – not uncontested – terminology) are not without their critics. To name the most obvious: who decides who is mad and to what end, which in turn raises issues of the role of governments and pharmaceutical companies in this process. These issues of social control, containment and exploitation are not new, c.f. Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation. It therefore makes for an uneasy pairing to me to have ‘free’ music being marshalled in the service of what remains here uninterrogated doctrine. Artists have pressed their work into such service before, for example Cornelius Cardew’s attempts to fit his music to a Maoist agenda; that, however, wasn’t generally considered his most successful musical endeavour. When it isn’t personal experience being drawn upon overtly but clinical guidelines, and furthermore when those guidelines provide the raison d’etre for the whole release, then you must engage with their provenance and functions or tacitly accept a viewpoint that comes with its own problems. A queasy alliance, then, a little like the semiotically ripe press photographs in which then-Prime Minister Blair (I feel disgusted typing that name, sorry. But one of the points of this review is to agree that nothing should be beyond discussion in art) delighted in posing with innocent electric guitars to prove, to prove, something hideous… In this case the music is the guitar (appropriately so) and is (disappointingly) happy to sit ‘pon the agenda-filled Knee with nary a qualm.

Which is to say, a text like this, especially one so proudly advertised and identified in the title, has its own contexts. If you fail to critically engage then the music is dictated by a set of inherited motives that are not interrogated. In that sense it may have been useful to choose a less partial text or to juxtapose conflicting (any other) viewpoints or experiences. Who determines madness? On this reading, the American Psychiatric Association.

I suppose we could talk about the music, even though enjoyment is, for me, undermined by the above concerns. All improvisations were recorded to tape and boast a certain consequent immediacy, sound wise. You might say, ‘well, that’s something to applaud’, or on the other hand you might say ‘why align such an excellent recording method to a somewhat dubious concept?’ S’up to you. There’s plenty of scrape and scree in these improvised rock-based fusions which shade at times into a melancholy ‘post-rock’ melodic melodrama that may remind of some Constellation acts…

But does it tackle or perpetuate clichés, both musical and mental health related? Let’s find out (Spoiler alert: it perpetuates).

There are recognisable musical forms and references in these interpretations, so how much is derived from thorough empathetic identification or indeed firsthand experience and how much is redeployed technique circling around accepted cliché? OCD presents us with distorted vocals and repeato patterns, like in a ‘compulsive’ way? Ok. Depression comes on like a poor mans’ Deathprod. Sleep Terror provides us with an eerie string melody and detuned guitars. Catatonic Schizophrenia wields a numbed and constant buzz (and, furthermore, fails by being fairly enjoyable).

…It’s all very literal; a musical shorthand analogous to (if not subconsciously absorbed from) the most heavy-handed of film cues, or worse, from the emotional manipulations of advertising media. ‘Delirium getting in the way of YOUR day again? (discordant guitars tumble dutifully)… then take All New DSM!’

As such, things fall into easily digestible (and predictable) shapes, easy templates. I’m not convinced the album as a whole shows any particular sensitivity to or engagement with the experience of ‘mental disorders’. A manual is a symbol of detachment and a process of categorisation, cataloguing and control, so perhaps this is apt. The various musicians can clearly play sympathetically as an ensemble, in this case, though, the material seems to have provided inspiration pretty much confined to a ‘do a fast one, now a slow one, now a sad one, now one with vocals’ level.

Rather than the experience of madness, the group reflect definitions accepted and promulgated by pharmacological-psychiatric-bureaucratic-power-structures through accepted stereotype. Are you doing service or disservice? Whose agendas are you serving? Do you contribute to an understanding or perpetuate shorthand weighted not so much upon those on individual experiences of ‘mental disorders’ but on the categorisations determined by powerful social institutions?

This isn’t to say that the group shouldn’t have tackled the subject, art should surely attempt, at least, to grapple with anything, especially perhaps complex subjects– it should just have been more a lot more thorough. Explorations of non-standard perceptions and mind-states are something music can excel at, the connection between music and changing consciousness a deep and ancient one. For successful and sympathetic studies in consciousness and free music see, for example, the work of Ken Hyder and K-Space and their investigations of shamanism – a whole lot more stimulating. The use of a text as a basis for improvisation is also a sound idea, itself, with potential, but without engaging on any level with this text other than trumpeting its existence the group simply reproduce associated difficulties and questions without offering anything in the way of separate identity, commentary, novelty or exploration and are left only with an artifice ultimately in the service of vacuous abdication.

Would Wilhelm Reich have enjoyed this? Probably not. R. D. Laing? Likewise. Me, not so much, either – I find it too compromised by lack of critical engagement. Without that engagement it becomes a quirky music for corporate seminars and pharmaceutical promotions by default. As an artistic exploration of mental distress it is therefore rather unfortunately limited. You might as well just read the book. (There’s a new issue out by the way, so the internet tells me.)

Output: Noise