Composer Ardith Soames Dead at 65:
Founding Figure in Hypochondriacal Realism
By Donald N.S. Unger
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
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
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
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
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.
the Medico-Musical-Nexus that was to drive her career for the next forty
In 1968, tragedy
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.
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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
survived by her sister Arden.
In lieu of
flowers, donations may be made to the Institute for Hypochondriacal Art
at Bergen Community College.
Don 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.