Review: Song of Contagion

Of all the ways to get people thinking about contagious diseases, using music isn’t something that immediately springs to mind. Yet that was exactly the tactic taken at an event I went to see last week.

Dubbed ‘an alliance of science and music’, Song of Contagion is a musical performance all about attitudes towards infectious diseases, and the lives of people affected by them. The show is the brainchild of musical director Tony Haynes and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani, who came up with the idea of ‘hearing’ diseases by matching health statistics with musical compositions.

Performed by the Grand Union Orchestra, a 26-strong group of musicians and singers from all over the world, Song of Contagion aims to question why some disease outbreaks feature all over the headlines, whilst other diseases, which often affect many more people, get brushed under the carpet in Western culture.

It’s safe to say I was unsure of what to expect as I made my way to Wilton’s, a charming Victorian music hall in the heart of central London. The performance, I soon discovered, was made up of five sections, each telling the story of a different disease or health problem. As the lights dimmed, the show began by taking us on a journey to the 19th century, and the banks of the Thames, when cholera raged through the capital. Expressive music accompanied the choir as they told us the story of physician John Snow, who helped to eradicate the disease in London. However, the song was poignantly interwoven with Bengali lyrics and Indian rhythms telling the narrative of Kolkata, where many people still only dream of fresh drinking water today.

As the show continued, a literal musical interpretation of statistical graphs portrayed the story of the rise of AIDS in the USA, the music’s increasing tempo and volume helping to convey growing public awareness and research into the disease. I particularly enjoyed the next section, ‘Mosquito Songs’ – a sequence of African-inspired dance songs, sung as personifications of disease-carrying mosquitoes explaining the journey of Zika and Dengue from Africa to South America.

Later, ‘Song of Broken Hearts’ highlighted the flaws in our modern indulgent lifestyles promoted by the junk food industry. In ‘Mind Song’ we heard the interweaving stories of three veterans affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, their haunting flashbacks represented by instrumental solos. As we reached the finale of the show, the singers came together and sang of their hope that music can play a role in healing and reconciliation in the world.

Before the performance, I was definitely a little skeptical about how a musical show could teach me anything about diseases. However, by the end of the performance, I realised just how effective Elizabeth Pisani’s idea was.  It was refreshing to learn about health in a new way, and the performance made me reflect on the way we think about diseases without feeling lectured to – probably why the show was supported by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award. More than anything, I loved how much the show was enriched with musical influences from all over the world, and it was evident just how much the singers and musicians loved putting on the show. Song of Contagion was only on for a few nights this time, but I’d definitely recommend getting your hands on a ticket if the show is on again.

You can find out more about other performances by the Grand Union Orchestra here.

Emma Lisle is studying for an MSc Science Communication degree at Imperial College London

Banner image: violinist, furtseff

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