‘The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness’ is an ambitious multi-modal work for ages 15+, exploring one young man’s experience of psychosis. The work draws on Matt Ottley’s own experience of living with Bipolar Disorder. Ottley states: ‘I wished to create a narrative, in the form of a fable, that, through the combined art forms of literature, visual art and music, gives audiences an aesthetic experience of a psychotic episode’.
He does this by centering the story on the metaphor of a tree, ‘whose flower was ecstasy, and whose fruit was sadness, growing within him’. Medication works for a while, but the tree pushes through, moving his mind into an altered state. This is represented by increasingly surrealist paintings and imagery. The man is eventually grounded by the love of his friends and family.
The music was composed partly by Ottley during a severe episode of his illness when he was not able to understand speech, but could compose by transcribing the cacophony of instruments in his head. He collaborated with another composer, Alf Demasi. The music was performed with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, conducted by Mikel Toms, with solo tenor Ben Reynolds and narrator Tina Wilson. The multi-modal nature of the work, and its tendency to contribute to community engagement, personal wellbeing and the generation of other creative work, fulfills the publisher’s vision at Dirt Lane Press.
Unlike his earlier work, ‘Requiem for a Dream’, this picture book has sparse text. It is interspersed with 74 paintings and illustrations, which have also been made into a 50-minute animated film with the same name. The accompanying music is available as a CD in the back of the book, as well as a free download on the author’s website. Extensive study guides and music resource notes are available too. These would help make a lively unit on textual analysis for upper secondary and university courses, focusing on themes of empathy, joy and suffering, subjectivity and the nature of reality.