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Composer Ardith Soames Dead at 65:
Founding Figure in Hypochondriacal Realism

19 May 2016

The death of feminist composer and performance artist Ardith Soames has led to a searching re-examination of what her work meant and what its deeper value might be, both to music lovers and to medical and mental health professionals.

As Dr. Axel Rosenberg, a visiting fellow in Neurology and Psychiatry at the Steinway Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center reminds us, Soames was the first exemplar of, and the leading light in, the cutting edge field of Hypochondriacal Realism.

“Before Soames’ work,” Dr. Rosenberg notes, “we were well aware that music could make you sick; less clear was how being sick could make you musical.  Ardith’s work speaks to that point.”

From her early tentative pieces, such as the Bulemia Cantata, to later darker works notably the Toe Variations, and, of course, famously, her lighter sallies–paramount among them 1978’s The Hemorrhoid Symphony–Soames always kept herself, her music, and by extension her audience, in intimate contact with her body, its idiosyncrasies, its foibles, its squeaks and its moans. 

Born in Brooklyn, near Gravesend Bay, in 1948, Ardith Soames’ musical talents were not immediately obvious.  She took piano lessons and later, in Junior High School, played violin, often recording bits and pieces of what she was doing on the family’s reel-to-reel tape recorder.  Those recordings became something of an obsession for her: playing them backward and forward, at different speeds, cutting and splicing. 

In her early teens, when she stopped leaving the house, even to go to school, her weight ballooned to above four hundred pounds. 

“I remember Mom didn’t quite know what to do,” says her twin sister Arden.  “And when she finally said something, it wasn’t much and she didn’t harp on it, just: ‘Dear, I think you need to lose a little weight.’  But Ardith was always very sensitive.”

Ardith lost more than 175 pounds in six weeks, bringing her down to the svelte 225 she was to maintain for the rest of her life.  And, in the process, she produced the Bulemia Cantata, which premiered at Carnegie Hall when she was just seventeen.

It established the Medico-Musical-Nexus that was to drive her career for the next forty years.

In 1968, tragedy struck again. 

Having traveled to Prague both to be inspired by the growing uprising of the Prague Spring Rebellion and to have toenail reduction surgery on all eleven toes, whose ingrown nails had caused her unremitting pain and deep embarrassment while wearing sandals during the teen years from which she was just emerging, Soames was struck down by the political and medical fates: the sixth toe on her right foot accidentally amputated when Mongolian troops burst into the operating theatre before doctors could conclude their work, startling a scrub nurse who dropped the fatal scalpel at just the right—or wrong—angle.

“She never really recovered from that accident in my opinion,” says Dr. Jackson Bronwitz, a Musicologist and amateur Podiatrist at Cornell University Medical Center.  “Even if she couldn’t use the right pedal with any real force anymore, she should have been able to write that sort of pedal usage.  But she wouldn’t; she refused.  What she couldn’t do, couldn’t be done; to write any other kind of music, she thought fraudulent.”

Many feminist scholars agreed, and came to see this as a turning point in Soames’ career, politically as well as musically. 

“There was a fierce honesty to that act, to letting go of a vigorous right pedal, a loyalty to the toe which I think men are fundamentally unequipped to appreciate,” argues Diana Rothstein of the Radcliffe Institute for the Study of Women and Gender at Harvard University. 

“A lot of us were deeply moved by that act, by the extension of ‘the personal is political’ to ‘the medical is musical.’  I think many of us had felt something like that before, but been unable to articulate it, to clearly and boldly put it into action, as Ardith did.”

Others didn’t see it that way.

“Oh that was the end for me,” says New York Times music critic James Hendrevich.  “I was willing to go with the Vomiting Violins in the Bulemia Cantata; I thought there was some real risk-taking there.  It was the late 1950’s, everyone was stretching the boundaries of the possible; she was Ginsberg with a composer’s notebook!  But that toe thing?  Gimme a break!  It was pure gimmick.” 

“What I’d like to see now is autopsy results.  Or an exhumation.  And I’ll bet you flats to sharps they would show that either she never had that eleventh toe or that it’s still there.  Why else the single black sock with the open toed sandal?” 

“It was all a gimmick.  She was half over-the-counter pharmaceuticals by weight at that point, she was losing her edge, her career was in free-fall.  This made her news again.  The Toe Variations, in my view, were a scandal that no one cared to look into too deeply.  Cost me my job as music critic at The Voice when I tried.”

Soames is survived by her sister Arden

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Institute for Hypochondriacal Art at Bergen Community College.


Donald UngerDon Unger was born at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and has spent more than fifty years now touring medical facilities across Europe and the Americas.  He has published about thirty short stories, a handful of poems, hundreds of journalistic pieces, and done a few dozen radio commentaries for local NPR affiliates. He writes the occasional unpublishable novel as well—one of which was his MFA thesis. He was disappointed to discover that his PhD did not earn him a prescription pad.  He accepts that writing is clear evidence of mental illness; he also understands that any relief writing provides is symptomatic and temporary.  He has had a headache since 1990.  


See also: Felix Spielenhammer (1897-1995): “The Heavy Mahler”.