An Unexpected Duet

Wendy Smith and Niall Crumlish talk through how a song, story, and sunlight collaboration begins.

Photo by Niall

Acoustic Mirror
By Wendy Smith.

Early morning on Wednesday 31st August while still in bed before getting ready for work, I checked my Twitter feed. At 7.15 am, I received a direct message from Niall Crumlish. The message started with “Just want to say I’m in hospital, I am going to theatre. I am going there now.”

“Right”, I thought, sipping my first Earl Grey tea of the day, barely awake.

Until that moment, Niall had been a Twitter acquaintance. I’d read his pieces on his brilliant blog Psychiatry and Songs and admired his writing about music, which details his close listening to a huge range of songs and artists. His knowledge of music is vast. 

He told me he needed surgery. It sounded serious. He said the song holding him up that morning was ‘Life of Surprises’. It was moving to hear the music of Prefab Sprout, my work, Paddy and Mart’s, was woven into his life, including ‘the best elements’ of his life. He was going into theatre singing a line from a Sprout song that he heard in my voice: “Just say that you were happy, as happy would allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”. This was undoubtedly an unexpected moment in Niall’s life, in his work and family life. I wondered what the surgery might mean, what exactly was going on. It seemed significant that Niall reached out to share this moment in such a direct way. I wanted to respond in a meaningful way.

Before receiving this surprising early morning message, I had often thought Niall would be a good collaborator. We share an intense passion for music, an interest in how music sustains us, how our stories can be told through the music we love and how it helps us make sense of the world. The potential for collaboration is the kind of creative notion I often have but don’t do anything about. Busy at work, busy at home, I struggle to make time for my creativity, my artistic life outside of my job. Anyway, I sent a message to Niall wishing him well and told him I’d had this thought. Maybe I wanted to send a more direct line of connection than him listening to music I have made or me reading his blog pieces.

The next day, the day after the operation, a new message arrived: “I am doing well”. At this point, I didn’t know the details of the surgery other than an unusual symptom of musical déjà vu he’d mentioned. I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t want to ask for updates or for contact. It was clear he’d need time to recover and we barely knew each other. Still, I wondered how he was. Another nine days silently passed by so I pitched in with ‘How are you doing Niall?’ He replied to say he was doing okay, and that he had a meeting with his neurosurgeon and excellent specialist nurse scheduled in the following week to talk about treatment. He told me a bit more about his family, his extraordinary wife Sharon, his dad, and his three children.

Niall shared that after only six days of musical symptoms he’d been diagnosed. He followed with a detailed description of how throughout his life he lassoed songs or lines from songs to ground himself, to anchor and guide him. In the days leading up to diagnosis, when he cast out a line for a song to act as a touchstone as he always had, he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t there. After a lifetime of anchoring through songs, this absence sounded scary. Also, I wondered how such a unique symptom might be explained, properly heard, and understood. After only two weeks of messaging, we were in at the deep end.

For whatever reason, perhaps because we shared common interests, Niall was comfortable sharing his experience with me, while checking whether I was okay to hear it. I was.

Niall’s connection to music had become clearer through the absence of being able to cast a line for a song he needed and find it. There was fear that after surgery it might not return, but with huge relief, the connection between music and his autobiographical centre remained intact. And although there was a lot going on he said collaboration was appealing. We agreed this would require us to get to know each other better. 

From there we sailed into an exchange, getting to know each other beyond public Twitter posts. We chat in messages and emails, not in person. It is a written conversation. We send each other music, mainly songs, with some classical pieces. Over four months we’ve shared hundreds of tracks and artists we love, sometimes explaining why and what they mean to us. To keep track we created a shared playlist, and by December 21st the list included close to two hundred songs.

Extremely obviously, given that he is a psychiatrist, Niall has a psychologically minded approach. I really like this. He wants to help, he’s kind, compassionate, measured, generous. He thinks about other people’s feelings and experiences, understands how to detail or be specific in what he writes, knows how to get it right without alienating and without expressing judgement, even if like all of us he is judging.

I wanted to understand more about the connections Niall makes with music. I did quite a lot of wrapping my head around his frame of musical reference, his lassoing music for guidance in a concrete, direct way.

I’ve always been interested in the way music contains and expresses our experiences, feelings, and memories. How composers and songwriters can tap into this instinctively or use common musical patterns and cadences to express and evoke emotions. We all know music uplifts and consoles; I’ve always gravitated towards consolation through melancholic music—the blues in a wide spectrum of musical styles and tones. Obviously, for those of us who love it, and who doesn’t, music is an accompaniment to our lives. Songs are like maps or radar that can help us find our way. Although Niall’s musical lassoing is different from the way I find music helpful, we share common ground in music being a foundational part of our lives.

I connect most deeply to the sound of songs, their chord structure, instrumentation, the qualities of production, melody lines, the way the voice sounds, harmonies, and the way music breathes and pauses. Of course, words are important too. I often think of music as an acoustic mirror that reflects who we are. It can be a witness that helps us feel fully seen and heard. I have found it especially useful for what is beyond words, what seems inexpressible or even unspeakable. With music whether there are lyrics or not we don’t have to explain, instead, we can sing, create sounds, or listen.

There is also an obsessional aspect to music-loving: the best record lists, playlists, charts, exactly which conductor, which artist or orchestra, which live performance or recorded version is best, our favourite, which album cover, how we listen on vinyl or digital platforms, and which is most ethical. I would rather be obsessional about music than some other things that can be preoccupying. 

The continued conversation that began the day Niall had surgery coincided with his diagnosis and treatment. It corresponds with a time in my life when both of my sons are now adults and I have a renewed intention to expand my creativity, especially my writing.

For the last year, the thing I have found most beneficial is being part of writer, psychotherapist and yoga teacher Stella Duffy’s online yoga and writing workshops, where I have learned to write without pause, unedited on a crossed-out page in a cheap notebook with a nice pen. The main thing is to show up on the page as often as possible. I try to do this every day without judgement and without editing. I find it hard to make or find the time, and when I do have time a vast need to do absolutely nothing seems to surface. I like spending time thinking in a quiet space if I can find one. This does not help me to write.

Collaborating with Niall has made me make time and space to write on a blank page as I am doing now. And to dare to share that with another person. That is the hardest bit for me. To let go of the page and give it to someone else regardless of what they might think about it. Harder or easier with someone who is a psychiatrist, I am not sure. When I’ve shared pieces online in the past, I have used the prefix “Psychiatrists look away now”; well, there’s no chance of that here. It is hard to share. I edit thoughts like everyone does, to be careful of other people’s feelings, to be socially acceptable, and not to appear stupid or wrong.

Each year in winter I post on social media about the waning light and I look forward to its return. I bring a lot of people who struggle with winter along with me. Considering our respective circumstances, I wondered if light updates might be a manageable collaboration with Niall; short posts which can be relatively spontaneous and something I am used to sharing with others. I suggested it to him and he said a quick yes.

The light updates or daylight posts started when my youngest son was two or three. As a solo parent, I had to get through the winter months alone with two young children and a full-time job. Though I had lots of support from friends and family, I found the long dark nights difficult and often frightening, especially when my children were unwell and I was night-watching. In Autumn all I could see before me were months of darkness. I found a way through the darker months by breaking the weeks into manageable chunks. From Samhain at the end of October, when the clocks go back, to Winter Solstice in December the days get shorter and the nights longer. This lasts for about seven weeks. Then, over six weeks from Winter Solstice to Imbolc in early February, the days become noticeably longer and light is returning along with spring flowers and the dawn chorus.

I post light updates in case they help others. I usually use nearby Newcastle Upon Tyne as the location for daylight hours, so perhaps they are most relevant to people living in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but others can get the drift too. I post times of sunrise and sunset, the number of days to Winter Solstice, the hours of daylight each day, and how many seconds or minutes of extra daylight we can enjoy. I post photos I take myself on walks and other people send photos of what light looks like where they are. My friend, the artist Emily Hesse called this ‘measuring daylight’. I really like that. Measuring daylight feels like time well spent.

Photo by Emily Hesse

For our collaboration, we agreed to post a song, a photo, a few words, maybe a haiku or tanka from Niall, or a fragment of my writing.  As Niall is based near Dublin, and I am in Northumberland, I decided to use Dublin as the location for daylight hours. Once started we expanded to two posts per update with two songs, an A and B side, sunrise, and sunset. This was Sharon’s idea. So, we chose photos showing the quality of light in a particular place and linked them to songs. We selected songs or pieces of music mainly related to winter light by artists we love and, in the process, helped ourselves and hopefully others who appreciate longer daylight hours to get through the darkening days of winter.

Altogether between Samhain and Winter Solstice, we posted thirty-eight light updates including about seventy-six photos and songs. We invited others to help, and eighteen lovely people sent photos, lines, or songs. There were contributions from Ireland, England, and Wales, gorgeous photos of light in Dublin, Galway, the Lake District, Northumberland, the North York Moors, Tynemouth, London, and Powys. Sky, sea, trees, birds, lots of birds, horses, shadows, frost, sunrise, sunset, and all rays of light in between.

Working on the light updates with Niall has been wonderful and I have learned a lot. Though working together had come completely out of the blue the detailed listening to music and piecing posts together felt like familiar territory. As a singer and performer, I focus on the sound of voices blended through harmony, working out what that might do to a song, how the combination of voices might scaffold, embellish, create atmosphere, or what it might communicate to others. While writing this piece I’ve wondered whether creating the light updates together has been a kind of unexpected duet.

Photo by Sharon Brady

Just Say That You Were Happy As Happy Will Allow
By Niall Crumlish.

On Wednesday August 31st, I woke early. I was in a six-bedded room on a neurosurgical ward called Adams McConnell in Dublin’s Beaumont. I was in hospital as a patient not as a doctor for a change. I was due in theatre that morning for a four hour operation that would involve my skull being opened. Kind empathetic nurses woke me at half five to give me medication that would assist surgeons in conducting my operation. I didn’t sleep again. I was not massively relaxed. I had slept for three fidgety hours. Nine hours is normal for me.

As light rose I sat looking through a bedside window facing west. I was due a craniotomy so that a structural abnormality that caused musical neurological symptoms I had first ever experienced on August 20th could be excised from my left anterior temporal lobe. It hadn’t been remotely obvious eleven days earlier that there was anything the matter. It was 11am on Friday 26th August that I knew with reasonable certainty that something was up. A hundred and eighteen hours later, I would be asleep in theatre with a saw buzzing. 

Lives can upend quickly.

I went to work on 26th August as if nothing was wrong because essentially nothing was. Then I had symptoms in my Inchicore clinic office as I was talking intently with a member of my team. Though what we were talking about was pressing and fascinating legally and psychopathologically, I realised minutes into our conversation that I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t attend to what either of us was saying. I was distracted by what seemed like a song in the ether trying to get me to identify it. I couldn’t hear the tune or lyrics of the song but it was niggling at my musical memory and I couldn’t focus until I knew what song it was. Five minutes later, after I’d used an excuse to ask my colleague to leave, this song that itched at my musical memory turned out not to have been a song at all. It was gone; vapourised. There was no residue. It is so hard to explain this.

That conversation is to this date the last conversation I’ve had about any patient. I never had a symptom while seeing a patient. I miss seeing patients. I miss my work family. I miss being useful in the south inner city. I look forward to getting back, which slightly surprises the version of me who was never happier than when setting up the work email auto-reply telling contacts he had just headed off on seventeen days of summer holidays.

On Friday 26th I was rapidly assessed in the ED in St. James’s, seen by a brilliant neurology colleague, and scanned. At half four, imaging all done, my colleague had to call me. I was told that evening that I had to go to Beaumont as soon as possible and I arrived close to midnight. I hung around the hospital for the weekend taking steroids, clasping my wife Sharon’s hand, meeting friends, and relying on songs; real songs.

On Wednesday 31st at 7am, the ward was still quiet. Although not listening to music I had music in my head. Not unusual, as Tom Jones would say. It was one song. My musical memory, which I have relied on every day for decades for guidance and resilience, was playing a song it had chosen wisely: ‘Life Of Surprises’ by Prefab Sprout. I was hearing one couplet over and over. Well, I didn’t hear it. It was auditory memory: when your brain hums a song to itself and it seems like you hear the singer’s voice but you don’t. The couplet was “Just say that you were happy as happy will allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”.

I didn’t deliberately select this song or couplet. Still, I had signed a consent saying if surgery goes wrong you may experience stroke or death. My mind likely selected this song because it was a terrifying morning and this was my musical memory giving me strength and settling me. Telling me—this is not all good, but remember how lucky you are. Which I am. That morning, for a couple of hours, I heard this couplet in Wendy Smith’s voice. Wendy’s Prefab Sprout harmonies are typically higher-pitched than Paddy McAloon’s lead, and they are generally sung with a hushed compassionate tenderness. Usually, over the years, when Prefabs songs have hummed themselves to me it has been her voice I hear them in rather than Paddy’s. 

I knew Wendy a little. Not well, but we had followed each other on Twitter for a few years and she had messaged me kindly about my mum’s death in June and about her eulogy, which I wrote. Now I was about to go down for perhaps the most momentous four hours of my life and I was hearing her voice on repeat, repeating lines akin to what I would later learn in meditation to be a sankalpa. In my memory she was singing a heartening steadying mantra in a song that was providing spiritual and concrete protection. At 7.15 I direct-messaged Wendy on Twitter to let her know what was happening and ask for her good wishes. As you do.

I wrote: “Wendy, I hope you don’t mind me DMing you. Just want to say. I’m in hospital. I am going to theatre. I have complex symptoms including odd musical déjà vu symptoms. I need surgery. I’m going there now. I wanted you to know that songs have as always been sustaining me and the one that I have holding me up this morning, waiting to be taken to theatre, is ‘Life of Surprises’. Your music is just so important, so founding, so woven into the best elements of my life. I know you know this from my recent playlist but this illness has arisen since then! I appreciate your work so much. Paddy’s and yours. I am here singing ‘Tell yourself you’re happy as happy will allow, and tell yourself that that will have to do for now.’ I hear that in your voice. Wendy, wish me luck and we will see each other on main Twitter soon. Niall.” 

The playlist was one on Tidal called Goosebumps, which I had begun to build after my mum died and which featured songs that made my hair stand on end and/or spine tingle including several songs by Prefab Sprout. I also had to add, when I checked with Sharon just before heading to theatre: “My wife tells me that ‘Life Of Surprises’ was on an early mixtape I made for her. Over 20 years ago. I’m not lying about ‘woven in’.” 

I have since then often wondered what it must have been like to wake up that morning on the receiving end of this message. At work: “Any news, Wendy?” “No, not much.”

Photo by Niall

There are all kinds of ways that a reasonable person could respond to this message. One is—Eek please don’t send me messages like that. I would have completely understood this. But there are also kind, courageous, graceful ways of responding. I didn’t read Wendy’s reply until I woke up properly the next day, September 1st, 24 hours after going to sleep, but Wendy was replying as I was being put to sleep just before nine on the 31st. In what she wrote so soon she provided clear compassion, good wishes and much more, including friendship, an offer of collaboration, and a way to find light and energy during potentially the darkest few weeks of a life.

It took a few weeks of recovery post-op for me to be able to get properly into regular contact with Wendy. She regularly checked in and I said I’d get back to her. I wondered about her proposed collaboration. Is this realistic? What does it mean? I am a psychiatrist into music and writing. I’m a longstanding fan of Wendy. We talked about writing separately and together. We talked about why we write—not entirely for the same reasons. I was a little into haikus and tankas by this time. By the time we were in touch regularly in October, the timing was good as we were heading for Halloween and walking towards winter. Wendy had a fine plan. Every year, she runs a Daylight project on Twitter, which finds contemporary light and beauty primarily in photos and music when it is perhaps most difficult to find this beauty. So Wendy asked me if I could take and find photos, write short texts to accompany them, and to find songs to accompany light and words. I said oh yes.

We have finished the Daylight project since the December Solstice and I have wondered why I was so eager to do this particular piece of joint work apart from the obvious reason that it was an opportunity to collaborate with Wendy Smith, who I have listened to for years, whose post-Prefabs work in Sage Gateshead is also important, inspiring, and energising, whom I have come to consider a close friend, and whose taste in music is almost comically close to mine. Wendy said early on in the Daylight project that it was important that I pick a good few of the songs because her taste in music is that bit too melancholy. My favourite artists of all time, alongside the Prefabs and Beatles and so on, are Smog, Lubomyr Melnyk, Julia Jacklin, American Music Club, Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Circuit Des Yeux, and Sufjan Stevens, so yes, good to have me offset the melancholy. We sent each other plenty of songs that the other didn’t know and then really liked. 

And I think there was something critically timely about this for me.

In October 2022, during much of getting to know Wendy, I was wading through a period of post-hospital, post-tests anxiety and uncertainty. However, it was not until November 2022 that I was going to experience some other downsides of being a patient who needed the treatment I did, which is post-treatment tiredness, apathy, and an excessive wish for isolation. Baseline I’m fairly introverted and lethargy leaves me needing to be even more alone. This felt so seasonal, so in tune with the shortening days and lengthening nights, that a pathway through the literal and figurative darkness felt important. I mean, to state the obvious, I have a wife and family and friends around me who are unbelievably generous and caring and Daylight was not everything that kept me going. My wife Sharon kept me going in everyday life and in Daylight too by contributing beautiful pictures and songs so many times. But as well as having family and friends, having deadlines to find and select pictures of bright beauty and allocate songs to them and every so often spin out a haiku—this was a job that really helped energy arrive on days when otherwise it very well might have decided not to.

So. It is still winter. It is spring soon. Imbolc and St Brigid’s Day are less than four weeks away. I am not sure what our collaboration will be next, now that we no longer have to worry for now about the light. But we’ll work on something. Sharon and I will in Kildare and Wendy will in Northumberland. That’s my hope, anyway. And I will cherish whatever we find to work on. One thing I did not know about being properly sick until the days began to shorten last Autumn is that when you become sick you do not lose the belief that you need to do something with real meaning unrelated to illness. If it is just sharing a song or a snow scene or drafting a haiku that half a dozen people read. Like Smog sang: “To be of use / To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use”.

Photo by Max Smith Ogg

6 responses to “An Unexpected Duet”

  1. I LOVE this. xxx

    1. Thanks so much Stella 🤗

  2. Powerful connection

  3. Dorinda McCormack Avatar
    Dorinda McCormack

    This is really beautiful and so moving. I love the part that music has and is playing in your life.

    1. Dorinda—thank you so much for saying that. Niall.

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