AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa brings us classical music with a message on mental health with Angels Sang to Me performed (online) through the Cedar Cultural Center on March 5, 2021.
AJ is a classical composer. She started playing viola (like her mother before her!) when she was young. She composed an entire song when she was 13 (Dance of the Goblins). She wrote a processional for her high school graduation, which they used! She is a music scholar. She was someone who managed to do well in 2020. She was named a Cedar Commission Artist last year – and she got married.
For the Cedar, she has composed a 30-minute, 19 movement song cycle for voice and string quartet. It’s a very personal piece that traces AJ’s own experience with mental illness. She began having hallucinations when she was a young teenager, she was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder but was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She has created music based on those early hallucinations and the journey to understanding her mental health.
The piece is created around poetry – often the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She read through 1,000 poems before selecting 19. Her starting place was a Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist with bipolar disorder who wrote about the connection between creativity and mental illness. The book included a list of poets with mental illness; this became AJ’s canon. After choosing a poem, she’d read it and work with the sounds to create the music.
She has done clever things like having the vocals go in one direction while having the instruments in an almost cacophonous way bombard the singer with sound to emulate the feeling of an hallucination. In another song, the instruments start to drone, which mimics AJ’s earliest hallucinations of insects. What a moving way to help the audience better understand what it’s like to have hallucinations – or potentially for someone to recognize their own experience.
AJ is on medication now. She finds she is more creative and more productive on medication. When she was younger and un/misdiagnosed AJ would stay awake for days to encourage a time of creativity, which she recognizes now as manic phases. That is clearly not sustainable. She is hoping that the audience will leave the performance remembering a line from Emily Dickinson
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
The music is beautiful to listen to, the themes are difficult but important and potentially live changing, the work is a proof that AJ certainly does not live in vain.