“You get this idea of someone knowing that something is not right,” experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener says of Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” “It’s askew. You know the headache you have when you have a migraine—you can’t actually see something in front of the eye? That’s how I feel with this: that there’s something obscuring [your vision]…you’re looking for a clearing.”

Davies’s monodrama for voice—most often baritone—and six instrumentalists uses the same instrumentation as Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (plus percussion), and was first performed in 1969 by South African actor Roy Hart and the Fires of London. In it, King George III—or someone who identifies as him—goes to pieces, trying to teach caged birds (here, the instrumentalists) how to sing. (One of the prompts for librettist Randolph Stow’s text was a mechanical organ belonging to George III, played with a similar aim in mind.) At the end, the protagonist smashes a violin and is escorted offstage by a percussionist wielding a bass drum, howling into the distance.

The extraordinary vocal writing of “Eight Songs” is about the struggle to speak and be heard. Performers must go to their vocal limits, and audiences must be braced for some of the most violent and disconcerting sounds they will hear a human body create in a concert hall. The reciter rasps and croaks to create overtones and multiphonics. The score asks them to “ululate, like a dog.” They sing “Comfort Ye, My People” from Handel’s “Messiah” “like a horse.” They scream and yowl—and yet, at times, they sing very tenderly too. The extremities of the piece mean that it can cause both laughter and distress. Responses to the protagonist—revulsion and ridicule as well as empathy and recognition—tell us very much about how societies encounter very public mental health crises, reactions to which can be deadly. In this piece, vocal range implies a special variety.

Similarly dizzying is the score’s stylistic range: There are saloon foxtrots, a ghostly Mozartean rondino, a slushy, cocktail-jazz version of the aforementioned Handel, and a polyrhythmic minuet that drifts in and out of sync. But no pastiche is able to sustain itself, instead collapsing inwards under the unbearable burden of musical continuity. Musical disorder and psychic distress go hand in hand. In one sense the score reflects the fantastical and terrifying visions of the protagonist; in another, the musicians seem to induce further disturbances in the King as his tormentors.

One of Davies’s quotations from “Messiah” is marked “female vocalist.” Enter Elaine Mitchener. Her performance of the piece (with Apartment House at Wigmore Hall on May 16) was the first ever by a female vocalist in the UK. She is not the first woman ever to perform “Eight Songs”—Iranian vocalist Haleh Abghari performed the piece in New York in 2007, and for Davies himself in 2012. But Mitchener’s reputation as one of the most adventurous vocalists working in contemporary music today, as well as the explicitly political character of her artistic practice, marked this out as an important performance.

Elaine Mitchener, with the chamber ensemble Apartment House, performs ‘Eight Songs for a Mad King’ by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at London’s Wigmore Hall during a late-night concert on Friday 26 May, 2023 • Photo © Wigmore Hall Trust, 2023

The stage at Wigmore Hall is dominated by an art-and-crafts cupola, depicting an allegory of musical beauty. My partner pointed out that it framed the platform like a birdcage, one instrumentalists often sit in when the piece is staged. Mitchener had no costume save for a delicate piece of headgear by Flora McClean, which also suggested a cage. It is inspired by Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International, a nod to Davies’ stringently modernist beginnings. It also suggests Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel,” which ironizes human vanity and earthly authority and evokes a world ravaged by nonsense and incomprehension, one in which people can’t make sense from the sounds made by others.

In the 1960s, R.D. Laing spoke of “the suppressed madness of sane men”: the idea that sanity itself is pathological, and madness is a defensive response to a world that asks too much. “Eight Songs” was written in this climate of psychiatric questioning, which criticizes a reliance on confinement and medication, as well as the philosophical and social constructions of madness, sanity, and health in general. In this spirit, “Eight Songs” is a humane and tender portrayal of psychic collapse. It questions the limits of who or what is granted humanity and dignity. If a person has lost their reason—the central plank of an Enlightenment conception of Man—“Eight Songs” shows that doesn’t make them less than human.