Caerwen Martin wrote music for “the coolest bunch of people” she met in children’s hospitals


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra will soon present a program of familiar classics from Haydn, Mozart, and the like. But nestled between these works is an unusual Australian composition, and it pays tribute to the experience of young people at their most vulnerable.

Caerwen Martin’s 2018 piece Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky is at the centre of the MCO’s concert program. It’s dedicated to patients she met inside Victorian hospitals, and also touches on Caerwen’s own experiences with music as therapy for others, and for herself as she lived through life-altering medical issues.

Caerwen tells CutCommon about this composition, which was commissioned by the Hush Music Foundation (originally for performance by ACO Collective), a charity releasing Australian music designed to soothe patients, staff, and carers in medical environments.

Caerwen, let’s talk about Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky. I’d first like to learn about the title — what is the story it tells?

It is a reference to my science-based understanding of spirituality; that no energy is created or destroyed, that everything that ever was of this universe is still of this universe, and we are all an integral part of that, regardless of where or what we are.

Martin Luther King said: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” I resonate with this. In times of great trial, we come to understand the magnitude of life; and deep in the horror of difficulty, we can find our singular core, like a single speck of light in a blackened sky. The fact that starlight from across space and time can reach us from so far away speaks to how darkness can never cancel light, only shadow it with cloud, and I take great comfort in that.  

This music came from your time in the Royal Children’s Hospital and Monash Children’s Hospital. What was your experience of these places?

My mentor Stuart Greenbaum and I were there as observers to get an understanding of the hospital experience, and what kind of music we should write to support people who are going through it. We were introduced to adolescents in the chronic health and mental health wards who were involved in music therapy programs run by an extraordinary group of music therapists.

All the adolescents we met had chronic health and mental health conditions, most of them severe. They were the coolest bunch of people. Stuart and I participated in some of the music therapy sessions, which I found deeply affecting but also easy and sometimes fun.

What was the most difficult part of the composition process?

Writing for this project was a deeply affecting experience and, to be honest, I still haven’t quite gotten past it.

A young girl we met at Monash was documenting her life through music and photos. The session with the girl and her mother was so beautiful, they seemed so happy together, but we were told afterwards that the prognosis was terminal, and the girl would not survive. I was profoundly saddened by the loss of this beautiful little girl, and for the heartache of her mother. I wrote them both into the piece as musical elements so they could be together forever whenever this piece was played, dancing between the stars. 

Truly touching. Caerwen, what inspires you about combining music and health?

My interest is personal: mental health, physical health, neurological health, circumstantial impacts on health — writing music is my therapy. It is how I cope with life, which has not always been easy.

Since birth, I have experienced and recovered from significant medical issues, including total recovery from two life-affecting ‘permanent’ disabilities…I am not saying it was easy, either.

Music is what has carried me through it all, giving me an expression, a focus, an escape, a place of processing, and opportunities for life that nothing else has. It makes sense to draw on my authentic experience and use it for social advocacy. I know I am not alone. 

You’re also an ambassador for Beyond Blue. With all these experiences in mind, how do you feel others working in music could better focus on their health?

Release the need to be perfect — you are perfect who you are. All music has value. All musicians have value. Stop competing. Stop judging. Stop comparing yourselves to others. Stop validating toxic conditioning. Release the trauma of conditional love delivered through critical hierarchal education systems.

Teachers and parents, please check yourselves. Music is a birthright. Don’t give it to a child then tell them that they have to impress you in order for them to have it, your approval, or your love.

Music is our connection to our souls. Musicians, don’t make it about anything or anyone except your connection to yourself. Don’t look for validation anywhere but in you. Do you like it? Yes, or no? Yes? Great! There’s your validation. No? Great! There’s your closed door that directs you towards a ‘yes’. Other people need you to make these decisions authentically; these people will be your audience.

Seek guidance, support, and connection where you feel safe. Boundary anything else to preserve your vulnerability. Always reflect, stay true. Work to your rhythms. Allow yourself to be loved. 

Thank you Caerwen. Before we go, what message do you hope to share through Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky?

This piece seeks to be an active preventative and replacement for trauma dissociation. The melodic content is respectfully reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, to evoke the feeling of a being in a real-life film. By offering a context of cinematic beauty to an otherwise frightening and painful situation, I hope to alleviate some of the associated stress and trauma that children and their carers experience when going through the medical systems.

This is piece is to listen to when you need safety and protection from life and how you feel. I hope it benefits you. 

Hear Stars Come Out in a Midnight Sky in Mozart & the Violin with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, featuring violinist/director Sophie Rowell, 7.30pm November 17 and 2.30pm November 20, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

If you or anyone you know is in need of mental health support, contact your GP, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or phone the 24/7 Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500.

Image supplied. Credit Ana-Ackar-Verve.

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