Music for the Unconscious Mind

An installation for isolated reclined listening in a darkened room, Music For the Unconcious Mind is created using sound recordings from hospital intensive care units combined with a version of The Goldberg Variations by J.S.Bach, midi sequenced to play the sound of ECG machines (heart monitors) and other hospital equipment alarms.

Visitors to the work are invited to recline on a treatment table (the kind typically used for massage or physio) in a dark space. They are immersed in the soundscape of a hospital intensive care unit (ICU). Machines alarms are going, trollies passing, doctors and nurses talk, ventilators breath, patients cough and every few minutes the beeping monitors order themselves and play out one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The installation resulted from a period of research into hospital sound environments. These soundscapes are acoustically challenging for both patients and health professionals. The situation goes largely unnoticed as ICUs are by their nature isolated, with patients either unconscious or semi-conscious and visitors tending to be distressed themselves. It is not an environment that generally permits reflection or criticism.

While in ICU units many patients experience what is known as ICU syndrome. This is a hallucinatory state triggered by lack of sleep and normal rhythms. The extraordinary levels of noise 24 hours a day contribute to this.

This work uses a story about Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a playful way into this charged subject matter. The story goes that in 1741 Count Kaiserling of Saxony commissioned the Bach to create the Variations during a period of of sleepless ill health, he had his pianist, Goldberg, play them to him on demand through the night to ease his pain and entertain him through the long dark hours.

The installation soundtrack lasts 1hr 40mins alternating between different ICU soundscapes and the variations played using the sampled sine wave tones from heart monitors, syringe pumps and dialysis machines rather than harpsichords. It was originally shown as part of a group show celebrating art and science collaborations with the Wellcome Trust at the VRC Dundee Contemporary Arts in 2011.

© 2017
Zoë Irvine