Also known as shared psychiatric disorder, the French term folie à deux (“the folly of two”) refers to the syndrome by which a psychologically stable individual shares the delusions of a person with a psychotic disorder. Such fertile subject matter has been taken up by British composer Emily Hall in her classically flavoured song cycle Folie à Deux. Its underlying story concerns two lovers whose idyllic life is irrevocably altered when the man comes to believe that an electricity pylon newly constructed outside their house has a special power over him, a delusion that gradually comes to be shared by his partner. Hall collaborated on the work with Icelandic writer Sjón, who wrote the lyrics, and scored it for two singers (Swedish vocalist Sofia Jernberg and British tenor Allan Clayton), an acoustic harp (played by Ruth Wall), and a specially designed electro-magnetic harp, played by Hall herself. The instrument serves a larger purpose in the piece beyond its distinctive sound quality, as Hall uses it to generate an underlying electronic presence designed to symbolize the pylon. Warp artist Mila Calix also contributes electronic beats to two of the nine pieces.
Co-conceived as both concept album and an opera, Hall's modern folk tale isn't her first vocal-based setting. Among the works the award-winning composer has produced are the opera Sante and a trilogy of song cycles created with author Toby Litt titled Befalling, Life Cycle, and Rest. In keeping with the folie à deux relationship, the work itself is intimate in design, with a minimal number of elements used to present its lyrical soundworld. With Hall carefully customizing the design of each setting, the work proves captivating, and the classical style of the vocal delivery gives the work a formal elegance that's appealing, too. While some songs feature Clayton and Jernberg separately, the work receives a powerful boost when they sing together, as happens during “Wonderful Things.” Uniting them in this way, of course, reinforces the trajectory of the story itself in the way it entwines the lovers within their delusion.
As with most works, certain pieces stand out. Abetted by the repetition of its “I bow to you” phrase, “Mantra” is one of the recording's most immediately entrancing settings, and the polyphonic presentation of Clayton's vocal lines within the starkly arranged “Ode to the Pylon” is hypnotic. The meditative vocal drone “Embrace” suggests a John Taverner influence, and certainly it's easy to imagine parts of Folie à Deux appealing to admirers of the late composer. In truth, Mira Calix's electronic contributions might have been better omitted, simply because the singing and the harps already provide sufficient aural stimulation. “Instrumental,” naturally, features nothing more than the harp's bright textures, and they tickle the ear perfectly well without anything else needing to be added. Though The Guardian's reviewer clearly didn't think much of the recent production at Spitalfields festival in London (“Musically, the result feels almost entirely static, something to chill out to, perhaps, but fatally lacking in dramatic momentum”), the recording, concisely presented in a thirty-nine-minute form, provides no small number of listening pleasures.