A Homicidal Love Song For the Solo Scream: On the Music of Psychotic States of Mind, by Lech Kalita

January 17, 2015

Filed under: Blog, Writings

By Lech Kalita
From the bilingual (English/Polish) book “Art and Freedom”, published by Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (Poland).Kalita discusses the yet unintelligible communication of psychotics, and does an analysis of the composition “Wild Women with Steakknives,” by Diamanda Galás.


LECH KALITA “A Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream”: On the Music of Psychotic States of Mind

In the present work I posit that we should avail ourselves in parallel of psychoanalytical concepts and musical creativity in order to enhance our understanding of the manner in which psychotic states of mind communicate. To my mind, the value of reflection on communication lies in the fact that transmitting one’s own psychic states to another person and the possibility of communing with the experience created in the person’s mind is part of man’s exceptional freedom. As a clinical discipline, psychoanalysis is close to musical creativity in a number of aspects: both fields require the ability to listen carefully on more than one level, a precise sense of timing, as well as a complex combination of theoretical knowledge, technical know-how and fine emotional tuning. Both disciplines lead to the organisation of rudimentary emotional states by the means of complicated symbolic systems and formal structures, such as for example language (in psychoanalysis) or musical notation (in music). However, it is precisely the expression and communication of emotional experiences that constitutes the fundamental content and meaning of both disciplines. Musicians and their audience are capable of finding a shared emotional significance in an hour-long jazz improvisation session without any predefined metre or key, just as the patient and the therapist can find a shared emotional meaning in a therapeutic session, during which both experience a variety of emotions, even though for an hour not a single word is uttered. On the other hand, even the most coherent theoretical psychoanalytical interpretations when separated from the patient’s emotions are reminiscent of practising scales to a metronome; in spite of being formally correct, they fail to occasion any great emotional impact.

Psychoanalytical psychotherapy endeavours to transform emotional experiences by the means of verbal interpretation of their significance. Mis does not mean, however, that the area of musical experiences is absent from the therapist’s study. In my work with patients, music has appeared in three basic forms.

Firstly, it has been the case at times that patients who wrote or performed music, whether professionally or not, simply recalled these experiences to me and in various ways associated them with emotions that were important to them. In these situations the patients communicated their musical experience on the level of verbal symbols.

Secondly, on a few occasions patients engaged in direct musical activity. As an example, a female patient suddenly decided during the session to sing a sad song about lost love that she had written. One could say that apart from verbal communication (conveyed amongst other means by the text of the song) such persons symbolise and convey emotional content also by other means (employing a defined musical structure: melody, rhythm etc.).

A third, and quite different, experience was for me the therapeutic session with a female patient with a strongly psychotic personality. This young woman spent the best part of the session cowering in terror in the armchair. I later discovered that at the time she was experiencing very forceful delusions in which I appeared as Satan, desirous of her death. On the day, however, the patient was not capable of referring to these delusions by a single word and so we passed the time in fear and in tense silence. The last ten minutes of the session were filled with her terrifying, piercing, inarticulate scream. During those long minutes, filled with terror, the patient’s scream became organised and disorganised according to certain paramusical, formal rules – some elements of the structure or tone recurred, only moments later to dissolve into chaotic, almost bestial howling. From the chaos, a few words emerged as a scream: ‘What is this?! What is this?!’ A closer analysis of such vocal expression and the related emotional processes is the core theme of this paper. For this purpose, I will, however, avail myself of another example – the musical art of the avant-garde artist Diamanda Galás.

Galás commands impressive vocal ability, capable of a nearly four octave range; she is also an outstanding pianist and composer with classical training. One example of her expressionist, unconventional style is a piece very reminiscent of the scream of my patient – her Wild Women with Steak Knives (a Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream).

The 12-minute long composition a cappella consists of screaming, wailing, hissing and jabbering that resemble glossolalia. Only rarely do a few coherent, screamed-out sentences emerge from the chaos. It is difficult to talk here about any metre, rhythm or even tonality, although the sounds do form themselves into some sort of repetitive structures. On the first hearing, a sensitive listener will probably be shocked, taken aback and confused, perhaps considering the piece threatening and peculiar. These reactions are reminiscent of the feelings that therapists frequently experience when working with the psychotic parts of the patient’s personality – for example in the situation which I have described with this particular female patient. Due to this, the piece both in its direct content and in its emotional impact clearly brings to mind the expression of early psychotic mental states. I would like to take a closer look at the details of this composition and its rendition in order to analyse to what extent in the performance by Galás the musical expression of the early mental states coincides with the psychoanalytical understanding of psychotic phenomena. One of the characteristics of psychotic functioning is the impairment of the ability to form symbols, in other words, to represent emotional experiences using abstract concepts, words or images, set in a network of systematised connections.1 To put it even more simply: an individual that functions psychotically is unable to organise his experiences on the basis of a shared, stipulated order. In his world, everything is only what it is. Mere are no impressions there, only facts, such as, for example, fear of another person is proof of that person’s bad intentions rather than a feeling which represents fear of another’s bad intentions. My patient’s terror of my having become Satan lurking to take her life was for her proof that this was how things were. Me impaired ability to symbolise is accompanied by problems with verbal communication. In extreme cases, words become empty sounds, since they do not represent feelings, phenomena or experiences. At the same time an individual functioning psychotically may retain the formal notions of combining words and use them non-symbolically, creating an appearance of communication without any emotional content. With psychotic functioning, the emotional content of a communication is manifested above all in the manner of delivering the communication and in the emotions that it evokes in the recipient. In this way, an individual functioning psychotically attempts to convey an unadorned, crude experience as it is, without the guise of a symbol.

A Homicidal Love Song by Diamanda Galás is an example par excellence of this kind of communication. The artist employs vocal expression, which is quite a sensuous, carnal act, a fact per se rather than a semantic carrier for words. As potential symbols, words clearly fall apart here; at times, they become totally butchered and turn into jabbering; at times, they retain correctness within formal rules. However, even in the instances where we occasionally come across sections of comparatively organised text, it is either completely broken up semantically, or else it has a strange relationship with the emotional content.

One can consider the musical layer of the piece in similar terms – it consists of loosely arranged sequences of repeating vocal motifs, or the smallest particles that combine to create the musical idea of the piece.2 Me more highly organised elements of the composition – such as the melodies and musical themes – occur solely in embryonic and distorted form, only, moments later, again to fall apart into separate strands. What certainly has a powerful and distressing impact on the listener is the total lack of tonality; without a leading key, we feel insecure; we are forced to endure tension.3

Taking into account the aesthetic dimension, it is impossible to claim that this piece by Galás is either pleasing or pretty. Hanna Segal considers ugliness a complement of beauty, rather than its opposite: ‘Ugly and beautiful are two categories of æsthetic experience and, in certain ways, they can be contrasted; but if beautiful is used as synonymous with æsthetically satisfying, then its contradictory is not “ugly”, but unæsthetic, or indifferent, or dull […] I suggest that both beauty, in the narrow sense of the word, and ugliness must be present for a full æsthetic experience […]. ‘Ugliness’ includes tension, hatred and its results – the destruction of good and whole objects and their change into persecutory fragments, if we say it expresses the state of the internal world.’4 It appears that Galás defines beauty in a similar way: as a full, satisfying aesthetic experience, an indispensable part of which is ugliness. This is how the artist commented on the piece under discussion here; ‘it did, accurately, go through this series of emotional states and I was showing the extreme beauty in the [piece] – I suppose you could say extreme beauty, as well as other states; there’s nothing about it that’s pleasant – it’s a very manic piece. Mere’s still beauty in it, but it wasn’t pleasant for the person inhabiting it.’

Does this composition by Galás communicate anything to us, apart from the sheer expression of the aesthetic experience? Me power of the emotional response on part of the listener clearly seems to answer this question in the affirmative; however, communication takes place here exclusively by means of expression and, precisely, via the emotions evoked in the listener. Galás builds up the structure of the message, using the simplest, most direct tools: repetition and the intensity of the scream. The composition acquires the characteristics of a symbol (that is to say, representation of an experience) only at the level of the totality of the communication: for the recipient, it may turn out to be a narrative about death, terror or arousal, but it reaches him mediated by non-symbolic, elementary, concrete forms of communication. If fear of what to us seems ‘alien’ does not make us turn away, we will notice that this primal communication is, in spite of everything, capable of touching and moving us. After all, we were all once screaming babies, and our very life depended on communicating through screaming.

I would like to conclude these reflections by drawing three conclusions. Firstly, the composition by Galás, understood as a musical form of expression of psychotic states of mind, can remind us that the predominant communication pathway in the case of the psychotic process is, above all, the emotional response evoked in the recipient.6 Art provides unique ways of directly evoking emotion in its recipients; this is, perhaps, why it is a better channel for communicating early mental states than language is. However, it is also the case in analytical psychotherapy that communication takes place not only via language; another method in which the therapist gets in touch with the patient’s psychotic states of mind is through the feelings evoked in him by the patient.

Secondly, direct, crude transmission of primaeval emotion requires expression of equally crude, primal form: Galás abandons higher symbolic systems (musical composition and text) not because she is not capable of using them but because she wants to convey emotional states that exist outside the symbolic order. The artist has made a deliberate choice. Me patients in whom the psychotic part of their personality dominates are frequently not in a position to be able to choose. If symbolic communication remains outside their reach, they are condemned either to attempts to transmit their feelings in a literal, crude form, or else to a desperate loneliness of experiencing them.

Thirdly, the possibility of expression – even when primitive, but taken up in order to communicate – provides hope for an experience shared with another person. Galás writes and performs her compositions in order to communicate something, to convey to the listeners her experiences and ideas, even though they are neither easy nor pleasing. In the psychoanalytical psychotherapy of individuals functioning in a strongly psychotic way, such as my patient, we hope – in spite of all the terror, confusion and alienation – to find a similar desire to communicate experiences. We set out to capture the symbolic significance of communicating using primaeval, non-symbolic tools, although in doing so we must face our own fear. And yet, this is what gives the patients a chance to share their experiences with others, which is one of the dimensions of freedom – in art, in the therapist’s practice and in life.

Translated by Anda MacBride


1 Cf, e.g., H. Segal, Notes on Symbol Formation, in: @e International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 1957, vol. 38.
2 Cf. A. Webern, @e Path to the New Music, Meodore Presser Co., Pennsylvania 1963.
3 Cf. H. Markman, Listening to Music, Listening to Patients: Aesthetic Experience in Analytic Practice, in: Fort
Da 2006, no. 12.
4 H. Segal, A Psycho-Analytical Approach to Aesthetics, 5 Cf. S. Tcherepnin, Diamanda Galás with Sergei Tcherepnin, in: @e Brooklyn Rail, July–August 2007.
, op. cit., p. 204.
6 Cf. R. Lucas, @e Psychotic Wavelength: A Psychoanalytic Perspective for Psychiatry, Routledge, London 2009.