Author: Ellen McSweeney

Build the Playground: Carolyn O’Brien on composing through depression

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Welcome to the final installment of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. For an introduction, as well as links to previous articles, click here.

Today, I’m delighted to bring you my conversation with Carolyn O’Brien. I visited her, her husband Bob Hullinger, and their dog Pete at their home in Evanston, Illinois. I brought a bottle of rosé, and Carolyn made the most incredible salmon cakes. More than any other conversation on this week’s series, my discussion with Carolyn and Bob was a talk among friends.

You’ll be inspired here not only by Carolyn and Bob’s relationship, but also by the ingenious strategies Carolyn has devised for how to compose through and with depression. Enjoy learning from, and laughing with, Carolyn and Bob in this intimate interview. — E.M. 

The composer and her husband, Bob Hullinger, in a photobooth this winter.

The composer and her husband, Bob Hullinger, this winter.

Carolyn O’Brien: (cutting up strawberries for dessert) Emotional sensitivity is great for art, but it’s rough for functioning in the world.

Ellen McSweeney: Right. In fact, something just came out in the Guardian this week that the gene for depression and creativity are the same.

CO: Have you ever heard of Andrew Solomon? The Noonday Demon? His book actually saved my life. In 2001 my dad had kidney cancer, and I went home to take care of him. I was really screwed up about taking care of my dad: drinking at night, caffeinating all day. Self-medicating. I didn’t understand what was going on with me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, and that was a pretty impressive book in terms of teaching me what condition I had. My sister read it with me; her name is Ellen, too. She’s my rock; she’s my closest link to anything about my history. I went to visit her and I basically said, “I need you to read this with me, I think I have depression.” After we read it, she was certain: “Yeah, you have it.”

EM: Isn’t that incredible, how someone else’s writing becomes your lifeline?

CO: Yeah, it really is. Have you read Darkness Visible by William Styron? I’ll send you home with it. I’d love that book, too. I don’t have the Andrew Solomon anymore, because I’ve bought so many copies and given them all away.

EM: For you, what is depression?

CO: There’s an amazing TED Talk with Andrew Solomon, and I haven’t found anything more articulate and precise than Andrew Solomon’s description of depression to the layperson. As soon as I heard him, I said, “Oh my God, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a complete and total breakdown. It’s a deprivation of energy. It’s like having no gas in your car—your car that feels.”

For me, depression isn’t just being sad, or self-medicating to calm down or raise up. It’s also a loss of cognitive skills. Two or three years ago, I almost got tested for Alzheimer’s because I had such terrible memory problems. Once I have the right medication balance, I’m in remission and I’m sharp again. But it scares the shit out of me when I can’t think straight. It took me forever to pass my exams at Northwestern. It took me forever to get candidacy because of it. And it was because I just didn’t have the right biochemical balance to keep my brain working. To me, that’s the scariest part: the memory loss, the cognitive problems. A loss of energy? I can always deal with that, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for days at a time on the couch. It sucks, but it isn’t as frightening. It’s the fear of losing my mind. I would miss thinking clearly.

EM: Tell me about how this life experience shapes the music, or how the music-making shapes this life experience.

CO: In 2011, which was a particularly difficult time for me, I realized that I could not think for very long. The depression was causing such cognitive problems for me that I just couldn’t. So I started this process of composing where I created a whole formal structure before I even wrote a note. And then I would just fill it in as I went, almost like building a brick structure. So I literally spiraled myself out of the depression using the Fibonacci series to write a piece. I started with the tiniest point, knowing that I could only function for a few beats, the tiniest amount of music. And then as I got to feeling better, and the meds started kicking in, I was able to spiral out more at a time. The Fibonacci series was perfect, because it’s this exponential growth. I wrote out little sixteenth notes: 1, then 3, then 5, then 8. It sounds ridiculous, but—

EM: No, it doesn’t! It makes absolute sense! What’s the piece?

CO: It’s my saxophone quartet, called Thing Contained. It’s a complete Fibonacci opening and closing up. It’s kind of one of these “everything but the kitchen sink” pieces; it’s not a perfect piece. But considering that I was in such a rough place when I wrote it, it’s special to me.

EM: And in a way, you saved yourself, by making it safe for you to compose. You were giving yourself these boundaries where you could just do a small amount at a time.

CO: The other thing is that because I used to be an orchestra teacher, I know how to help kids with learning disabilities. And once I was diagnosed with my own learning disabilities, connected to the depression, I had to start teaching myself. I had to go outside of myself for a moment, and be patient with myself, which is hard because I’m very impatient with me. But I learned to say to myself, “Just go from X to Y, or Y to Z today. Just do that, and you can stop.” And the spaces between X and Y and Z grew bigger, and I was able to function for longer.

And now, as a result – four years later – I create forms for all my pieces. I build the playground, and then I go and play on it. I have to be disciplined at the start, and then I can be original and fun and intuitive once the structure is built. It informs everything I do. I’m not wholly unhappy that this happened to me. It’s informed my work in such a way that I don’t really fail at the form anymore. The form is down. The next step is to pull away from the form a little bit, and get out of the rigor and into more fun. If anything, it might be a little too tight now! Which is way better than the opposite.

EM: This was so brilliant, on the part of struggling-ass you. To build this little playground where it’s safe. It’s a great tip!

CO: It’s definitely going to be part of my pedagogy in the future.

EM: Did your teachers give you tools to help compose as a depressed person?

CO: Well, it’s funny. When I was working with Lee [Hyla], I had what I thought was a creative block, when it turned out to be a cognitive issue. That was stupid. I hadn’t been composing long enough to have a creative block! I hadn’t exhausted four concepts yet! Lee was really cool about it because he’d had an eight-year writer’s block, as he called it. He said, “You’ve just had a three-year block? Well, I had an eight-year block!”

Lee turned me on to a style of composing, which got him out of his writer’s block, that he created and also got from Stravinsky, which is this idea of non-linear narrative.  Once he figured out how to put these seemingly unrelated chunks together and make them work, he no longer worried about what order things would happen in; he would just make them and figure it out later in an organic-sounding way. He was able to suture the seams.

EM: So he wouldn’t put pressure on himself to connect those dots immediately.

CO: Right, exactly. He used to compose on these tiny, tiny little pieces of staff paper, this easy-on-your-eyes green, old-school stuff. He bought every notebook of this kind of paper. I don’t know if there’s any left of it. He composed on those bits of papers and fit them together after he created the material. I think he was able to compose away from the piano, too. He could just compose anywhere, and do that.

Lee just backed off. He gave me space to have my problem without judgment, which is the first time that’s ever happened, ever in my life, from anyone, except for that guy, Bob, that I married. And my sister, Ellen.

EM: So, a pretty small pantheon. It is really rare that someone is able to do that.

CO: I didn’t understand what was happening to me, and I certainly couldn’t explain it while I was in the thick of it. And once I could explain it, there were very few people capable of putting themselves in the shoes of this person who’s suffering. But Lee could.

EM: I feel like lately, it’s becoming so clear that a big part of mental health is about limits. It’s about parameters. It’s even about adversity, maybe. Setting up a space for yourself where you can just barely succeed.

CO: One night I was being a little whiner and saying how much I hated school. And Bobby asked me, “When were you actually happy in school?” And I said, “Kindergarten.” And I was kinda flippant, but it’s also true! You’re at this station, and you’re building this thing with these blocks in a certain amount of time. And Bob said, “I have a book for that!” And he brought me this book, Inventing Kindergarten. It’s about Friedrich Froebel. It has the works of Klee, and Frank Lloyd Wright, that show how the concepts taught in this legit kindergarten manifested themselves later in their mature lives and their art.

So, some of the forms I now play with and use are completely based on one of the concepts from the kindergarten lessons. I use triangles and other shapes to represent additive and subtractive processes. Kindergarten is a time when you have these parameters, but you play while you’re in them. You get an adult to build you a thing, and then you get to use your imagination to play in that thing.

EM: So you need to be both the adult and the child, in that case.

CO: You do. And that’s a big part of my discipline as a composer.

EM: I have an idea for a final realm of inquiry, which involves both of you.

CO: (to Bob) Poor bastard.

EM: So, all the other composers I’ve interviewed for this have brought up—obliquely or explicitly—relationships. For Marcos, it was, “How do I work as intensely as I need to and have a relationship?” And I think for Keeril and Daniel, it was the same. Personally, I’ve been in a relationship that didn’t support my creativity, and now I’m in one that does. I’m curious to hear your perspectives on how you’ve supported each other’s creativity.

CO: I wonder if our relationship is different than the other composers mentioned, simply because when I met Bob, I was a teacher and he was putting himself through art school and tending bar. I wasn’t a composer yet; I had no idea I wanted to be a composer yet.

EM: Did you find that out because you met him?

CO: (to Bob) Should I give you the credit for that?

EM: Did it become a possibility for you because you were with him?

CO: I would not be a composer today if I had not had the support of Bob on every level. Not just monetarily, though I would never want to downplay that. Because let’s face it, if I had to support myself financially during the worst of my depression, I don’t think I could have survived that and be a composer and grad student. There’s a reason I don’t have children around here, because I can only handle so much. I would not be this healthy, nor would I be a composer without Bob.

Bob Hullinger: All I’ll say is that I don’t think you could have even entertained the thought. Back in 2000, it’s not like we were rolling in money. But that year, I got a raise, which helped you to feel secure to leave your job. For me, part of managing a relationship is dealing with the practicalities. I’m a graphic designer for hire; self-expression is not the coin of my realm. I solve business problems. But it all comes out of the fact that I feel lucky to have this job that I have.

CO: (teasingly) Do you feel lucky to have the wife that you have?

BH: I feel extremely lucky. In 23 years, Carolyn has never once put pressure on me to do more, to do better, to earn more, “why don’t you,” “why can’t you.” I’m eternally grateful for that total support, because I’m self-taught. I don’t have an advanced degree; I stumbled onto my job and this career. For me, I get a vicarious thrill out of the abbreviations at the end of her name. In one way or another, financially or emotionally, subsidizing this process makes me feel like an adult and a good partner.

I realize that Carolyn has an extremely important thing to say, musically, and I know how good she is at reaching people. I know what an amazing educator she is. I know that this is her life. And the point of being in a relationship for me is not 1+1=2. It’s 1+1=3, or more. It’s the space between you, the things that you fill it with, and how you then can go into the world together and make a difference. And the fact that so many people love and adore and respect Carolyn as a person and as a composer, I’m just glad to have my toe in the water on this one.

The composer and her husband in a photo booth in 1995.

Carolyn and Bob in 1995.

I remember the first couple of weeks, after her first composition lessons in California. She would come home like Moses coming off Mt. Sinai, like Charlton Heston: Behold his mighty hand! Something had changed. I knew she wasn’t the same little bunny that I married. But Carolyn’s a big artist, and a big brain, and has a big thing to say. And I’ll be damned if anybody’s gonna stand in her way.

CO: Wow! Ellen, please don’t be frightened that Bob just transformed into the Incredible Hulk to protect me against all threats to my career! I think I put too many gamma rays in the salad dressing. But seriously, when I have someone fighting for me, supporting me and inspiring me so much like Bob does every day, it’s really not hard to find the energy to maintain this relationship while being a composer. He helps me conquer a great deal of my self-doubt, but he’s also honest about stuff he doesn’t think works in my music. I have a cheering section with finely tuned taste. His work pushes me, too. And, with my diagnosis of severe depression, intense ambition with speedy results isn’t really part of the deal. I have to take my time because my mind works on a slower timeline. Bob has never judged me for that. He has helped me to stop judging myself. So, yes ma’am, I put my marriage first, but I find it easy to put it first because I have had solid ground with Bob for over twenty years. I tell you, every single person who meets him takes about two minutes to realize and tell me what a damned lucky woman I am. It’s true.

The Best and Worst Thing: A conversation with Keeril Makan and Daniel Felsenfeld

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Welcome to day four of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. Start here with a full introduction to the series. You can also take things chronologically: here’s Tuesday’s interview with Marcos Balter and Wednesday’s essay by Jenny Olivia Johnson.

Today I’m pleased to share a conversation with composers Keeril Makan and Daniel Felsenfeld. Keeril’s 2009 article, “My Dark Materials,” was written for The New York Times series The Score and is one of the more prominent “first person” discussions of composition and depression in recent memory. I wanted to find out what had prompted him to write the article, and what had drawn Felsenfeld, the column’s curator at the time, to include the piece.

We spoke over Skype from Cambridge, Chicago, and Portland, OR.



Composer Keeril Makan.

Ellen McSweeney: It’s wonderful to get to talk to both of you. I’ll start by asking you to tell me the story of how Keeril’s column came to be in The New York Times.

Keeril Makan: Danny had revitalized The Score. I noticed there were a bunch of great pieces coming up every few weeks. And Danny and I had met a long time ago at a composers conference at Wellesley, when we were both grad students. So I pitched my idea to you, right Danny?

Daniel Felsenfeld: Yes. I was invited to curate The Score by Peter Catapano, who is totally brilliant. The Score was kind of his baby, and I wrote a piece for it in its earlier days. As a curator, I got some great articles, and I was really proud of a lot of what we published. Keeril’s idea was spectacular. [Depression] is something that doesn’t get talked about a lot. And it’s something that I felt, as somebody with no lack of experience, needed to be discussed. Keeril and I had both had brushes with these matters, and it needed to be revealed.

EM: And what was reaction to the piece like for both of you?

KM: The most negative reactions to my article came from those who say, if you’re really depressed, you’re not going to be able to write music. There is a spectrum, obviously, and there are composers who can get work done despite the suffering they’re in. And for those who are experiencing something much worse, where they’re truly unable to function, that’s something else.

DF: Yeah, I think depression is almost the wrong word. It becomes a blanket label for so many things. Your sports team loses and you get a little depressed. Very different thing when you can’t leave your house, which is very different from PTSD, which is what I have. Every person responds differently when they have two glasses of wine; we all have very different brain chemistry. Therefore we all are very different as depressed people.

EM: Could you both share a little with me about what your personal experience with depression has been?

KM: I had never written anything about depression before, but I’d say it had been part of my life since high school, probably. In my case, eventually things got really bad. I finally reached out to a therapist, and started medication and meditation, all at once. Other changes in my life ensued around the same time. And things got better! Of course, it’s not so simple, but I think positive change can happen relatively quickly when you seek out help.

DF: I’ve been medicated on and off since 2001—I have a very diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder, because I was two blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11. This was not something that I felt comfortable unpacking on my own. It was a global problem that was deeply personal. And I ran into a lot of people along the way who disbelieved me, when I said I was upset or couldn’t sleep or was frustrated or terrified or incapacitated. A lot of people said it would pass, or to try dancing. Everybody thinks they understand depression because they’ve been through a breakup, or they’ve lost someone. But depression is a very specific thing. It’s good that we’re talking about it. Like Keeril said, so many composers, or artists, or creative artists generally, have experienced this. You have to lock yourself in a room and write a lot of notes that nobody exactly wants, and you have to convince everyone that they do want it.

KM: Once you discuss these things, people come out of the woodwork sharing their experience. But no one wants to take the first steps. It’s like divorce. I don’t know if either of you have been divorced, but once you make it public that you are getting divorced, you suddenly discover that everyone you know is divorced.

EM: Yes. I am divorced and that is exactly true!

DF: Yes. I wrote a piece about insomnia, and now everyone wants to share their sleeplessness stories! As soon as you cop to having a problem, people emerge. I liked what Nico wrote, and it’s an important subject, but I just think this has been going on for a long time. The letters of Beethoven are a chronicle of depression.

KM: Berlioz is a chronicler of manic depression!

DF: And Mozart’s letters are a chronicle of Asperger’s! You read those letters and it’s like, “Oh my god, it’s so obvious!” But in his time, this madness was a badge of honor. And I think we still have that romantic ideal that kicks around our culture, that an artist who has a mental disorder is purer, or has the spark of true genius, or they were given so much talent that they weren’t sane. [Mental illness] is either a badge of honor, or hushed up entirely.

EM: One of the things that’s come up in my other interviews is how our musical economy, specifically the extreme pressure of deadlines and big commissions, might be contributing to composers’ mental health challenges. Has this been true for the two of you?

KM: Certainly, if you have the pressure of a commission, that can spark some real trouble internally. But if you don’t have it, that’s a whole other thing! For me, the most difficult issue is actually something else. If you are steeped in a background of modernism — as I was in my education, through the teachers I had—then there’s a great deal of value placed upon the avant garde, creating new work, pushing yourself into areas that are new. That, to me, is the best pressure, but it’s also what triggers the worst darkness. Having a standard that can’t be met pushes you into great places, but into really dark places, too.

DF: You’re not allowed to write a good piece, or a solid piece. You have to write a world-changing piece, every time.

KM: And eventually, the time comes when you have to write just a real piece. Not a world-changing piece. Writing like this goes against everything I was trained to do and believe in. Those pieces of mine are out there. People like them and play them! I almost wish they didn’t, but I’m also glad that they do!

DF: And sometimes they like it better than the stuff you value so much! if you’re trying to be professional, and get grants, and get jobs—all the multiple streams you have to pursue to have the look and resume and career of a professional—it’s just the most time-consuming thing you could think of. And if you do something stupid like get married or have kids, you’re always doing something slightly wrong. You should be with family when you’re doing music; you should be doing music when you’re with family. Obviously this is crazy-making.


The composer Daniel Felsenfeld with his daughter.

EM: And there’s a constant stream of information about other people’s success, coming in via social media.

DF: I think social media is the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. I don’t feel comfortable totally extricating myself, but it can just send you down a hole of how well everyone else is doing compared to you. You know you’re not getting the full story. People tend to be not their most honest selves. The repetition of other people’s achievements can really get you down.

KM: I’ve gone off almost entirely. I don’t look at it anymore. It’s so detrimental to one’s well-being.

DF: I can trace so many good things that have happened to me to Facebook, and yet it’s a terrible thing for a depressive. It can burn up a lot of your consciousness all day.

KM: Part of my understanding of depression is that it has to do with a faulty self-image—the feeling that you’re always wrong. And Facebook reinforces that, minute by minute. If you’re someone who suffers from depression, you can’t filter through all the social media and see the truth. You can only see this external, false reality that reinforces your own negative feelings.

EM: Another thing I’ve become curious about is how the previous generation of composers—your teachers—coped, or didn’t cope, with these mental and emotional challenges.

KM: One of the positive things is that I know very few composers of our generation who are alcoholics. But I know so many of my teachers’ generation who were. I think we’ve gone from self-medicating through alcohol and drugs, to turning to therapy. One of my teachers, Jorge Liderman, committed suicide six months after I sought therapy for the first time. I’d had some inkling that he wasn’t well, but I had no idea what he was going through. For whatever reason, a lot of my teachers clearly had trouble and have died because of depression in some way. And it doesn’t seem to be the same now.

DF: I totally concur with Keeril. We just have a lot more information than they did about what you’re doing to your brain. Booze was considered a perfectly acceptable, gentlemanly way of handling things. We all watched a lot of people go down a bottle. It can get really distressing, and these are the people to whom you are supposed to be looking up so deeply, and yet they’re complicated. Today, I’d have an easier time relating to my students, telling them to seek therapy, if I felt like a student was in the same situation. Inevitably they will be. People who are drawn to this field are a depression risk, because of the way the career works. Every time I have a piece of music played, as the lights dim, I ask: why do I do this to myself? This is potentially a self-destructive behavior!

KM: Danny, what’s the most fun part of [composing] for you? For me, it’s rehearsals.

DF: I love the rehearsals. What I love is getting to know the people you have to work with. I love the other minds, and the collaborations. Anything but the applications and the performance are great. I even kind of like composing, some of the time!

KM: I tell every student I have that if they can do anything else as a career, they should. They should write music all their lives, but as a career, it’s not necessarily for everyone.

DF: How often do you contemplate just getting out?

KM: I don’t need to because I have a nice job. Certainly I used to. To tell you the truth, I still do. But I have no idea what that would be. I’m trained to do nothing other than be a composer.

DF: I have a friend who still composes, but went to school for being a shrink and is a social worker. I got jealous, like my cellmate had been sent a cake with a file in it or something. He had gotten a way out. I used to think composing was a higher calling, but it’s obviously a compulsion! The fact that I am approaching middle age, and keep going, and I don’t have the [big academic] job—there must be something compulsive about it! There are so many easier ways to run a railroad.

KM: So you think about getting out?

DF: All the time. If I’ve had a bad day—it won’t even be a musical thing, I’ve lost my keys—I think, I’ve got to stop composing.

Happily, as you can hear on their websites, neither Keeril Makan nor Daniel Felsenfeld has quit composing. My thanks to both of them for this conversation!

Productivity, Pressure, and the Power of Listening: Marcos Balter

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Welcome to day two of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. For a full introduction to the series, start here.

In this first installment of personal stories, I’m honored to present an interview with newly minted New Yorker, former Chicagoan, and Brazilian-born Marcos Balter. We can all gain a great deal from this candid interview, and especially from his honesty about intense productivity, the pressures of composing deadlines, and the struggle to balance work with personal relationships. Marcos is a beloved artist, mentor, teacher, and friend to so many people. I share his conviction that telling our own personal stories is the best way to help others, and I’m deeply grateful for his participation.

Marcos Balter

Marcos Balter

Ellen McSweeney: Marcos, thank you so much for talking with me about this personal and challenging topic. Can you tell me a little about what your experience has been with depression, mood difficulties, or other mental illness?

Marcos Balter: I’ve had a few encounters with depression throughout my life, though I do not suffer from chronic depression. It’s always been triggered by stressful events of all kinds, some professionally related and some more of a personal nature.

I have, though, fought very hard with anxiety, and peak periods that caused panic attacks. Now and then, I still have mild panic attacks. But I can usually identify them, and I have developed techniques that enable me to talk myself out of them. Sometimes it’s easier to do it than others.

EM: And how has this connected, if at all, to your work as a composer?

MB: I think that, in a way, composition is my best friend and worst enemy at once. I feel grounded when I’m productive. Nothing makes me feel more fulfilled than when I am working. It’s truly a cathartic activity for me. Perhaps because of it, I am a bit of a workaholic. I hate long hiatuses in between projects. If I give myself too much time, that’s usually when periods of high anxiety and/or depression kick in. It’s almost like I don’t have a strong sense of purpose if I am not making music, and that feeling is truly debilitating. The longer I wait to write something, the less capable I feel. Jumping from one project to another makes me feel much more empowered, and I feel I create my best works when I’m at a very high productivity level.

EM: It hadn’t occurred to me that the specific pressures of a career in composition are a pretty major mental health factor, but that makes total sense.

MB: Yes. There was a point in my life, not too long ago, in which I experienced a very palpable growth in my professional life. Even when I was exhausted after composing for over twenty hours uninterruptedly (and, I do really mean uninterruptedly), I would lay in bed and I couldn’t sleep. I knew every second I wasn’t producing I was letting these deadlines get uncomfortably close. On top of that, my inbox and voicemail would be flooded with messages from performers and presenters constantly asking if their commission was ready and when could they expect to receive it. So, I would usually set my alarm for maybe two hours, wake up, and compose for yet another twenty hours non-stop. That would go on for almost two months sometimes, every day, and then I would take just a few days, always less than a week, to recover before jumping right back at this kind of schedule. As you can imagine, that nearly killed me.

During that period, I had an extremely difficult year: I was unhappy with my workplace, overwhelmed with work both as a composer and as a teacher, my relationship quickly deteriorated, and my dog was diagnosed with cancer. So, yeah, my work is pretty closely related to my personal life, which in its turn is closely related with my mental health issues.

EM: Although every artist’s work and process are different, do you think there is something about artistic work that might make us particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or other mental illness?

MB: Absolutely. I think nearly every composer that is lucky enough to find a platform and some visibility for her work ends up trading a little bit of her sanity for that opportunity. There are deadlines. There are people always hovering over you, demanding their commissions. There’s the constant need to choose between being attentive to loved ones versus being productive, which many times seem antagonistic to one another. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s a sense of nakedness—unprotected exposure that can be terrifying. To do my job well, I have to be 100% honest with myself and not care about what others may think, which makes you a very easy target for other people’s emotions.

When I talk to other colleagues about the process of finishing a piece, I find that this is a common thread: if you really do it right, it sort of feels like you’re going to die, that you’re not going to make it, no matter how disciplined you are. Composing hurts, both mentally and physically. It hurts a lot, actually. I don’t think many non-composers realize that.

EM: For you, what is the connection between your mental state and the specific works you’re creating at that time?

MB: Composing, for me, is almost like keeping a diary. I do feel more creative when I am happier. But, funny enough, my works that seem to resonate the most with other people tend to be the ones I’ve created during convoluted personal times. I try not to capitalize on it, not to romanticize depression or anxiety. I would hate to be that person that exploits negative emotions as a font of ideas. I don’t think that’s healthy. But, I’m human, and I have low points, and I do produce during these low points. So, these darker works do happen. I don’t seek them out, but they do happen.

EM: One of the things I’m curious about is how mental health issues are dealt with, both privately and publicly, in our artistic community. Is this something you’d spoken openly about with colleagues? What have those discussions been like?

MB: I’ve talked openly about these things to close friends. I have tons of acquaintances and many friends, but only a handful of people I’d consider close friends. I do open up to those about these problems and seek their guidance and support. Funny enough, most of them are performers, not composers.

But I also feel extremely guilty talking about problems that were originated from being in demand. I always think, “I am so very lucky. There are so many people who would love the opportunities I have. I have absolutely no right to complain about my life. I should just suck it up and do it.” So, I censor myself quite a lot for as long as I can, until I reach a breaking point, which is not the healthiest thing to do.

I have to say I’ve become much more reclusive as I get older, and that I share less with others about how I feel. I am always paranoid about being too needy, that my problems will annoy people, that others may think less of me if they think I’m too fragile. So, I tend to hide my problems from most people so as to maintain an image of a tough and productive person. Just typing that, I can see how ridiculous that is.

EM: What resources would you point people towards who would like to explore this issue further?

MB: I’m a true believer in therapy. Having a therapist has helped me so many times. But as for self-help books and articles, I think I’m way too cynical to benefit from them. I think that mental health has become a very lucrative industry to many, and I don’t want to be one more person to be taken advantage of. That said, I think people should do whatever they feel that would help them. Use whatever weapon works for you.

When I want to help others, I try to listen to them. Because, in most cases, that’s what people going through tough times need the most: someone to really hear them out. Giving advice is much less effective than fully lending someone your ears and attention.

I think hearing about other people’s struggles is so much more useful than giving solutions. Each person is unique, and sometimes “how-to” articles on mental health mask the fact that each person’s path toward happiness is truly singular.

This Week: Musical Creativity and Mental Health

Musical Creativity and Mental Health

When composer Nico Muhly blogged about his journey towards mental health—after what he described as “ten chemically-unexamined years” of medication and manic depression—the Internet responded by gathering itself into a brief but unmistakable group hug. On my Facebook feed, colleagues all over the country shared the post, thanking Muhly for his honesty. Many indicated, or implied, that they identified with his experience.

As timing would have it, when Muhly’s post went public in May 2015, it had recently dawned on me that I was depressed. I’d spent the winter months in an unrecognizable funk, struggling to find structure and meaning in my days as a freelance artist, inexplicably crying at stoplights as I tried to get a grip. I’d lost “control” over my own mind—if I’d ever had it to begin with—and Muhly’s introspective candor was a balm for my confusion and isolation.

Later, I remembered a 2009 New York Times article written by composer Keeril Makan, whose reflections on depression and musical creativity had caused quite a stir. I thought about all the veiled references to depression I’d seen on social media and overheard at concert receptions. It began to seem that, in the midst of an expansive national conversation about depression, there was a more specific conversation to be had within our own artistic community. Are musicians more likely than everyone else to be depressed? Are composers leveraging their inner turmoil to create great work? What are the psychological effects of our competitive artistic economy?

And thus, this week’s series—Musical Creativity and Mental Health—was born. Each day this week we will bring a different first-person perspective on these questions. My hope is that these pieces provoke discussion and sharing, as well as simply affirming that those who struggle with depression while making musical work are not alone.

Here’s what we’ve got planned this week:

TUESDAY: An interview with Marcos Balter

WEDNESDAY: A new personal essay by Jenny Olivia Johnson

THURSDAY: A conversation with Keeril Makan and Daniel Felsenfeld

FRIDAY: At home with Carolyn O’Brien

What’s wonderful about this collection of essays and interviews is that, hidden among the mental and emotional challenges that each artist has endured, you’ll find stories about the ways they’ve learned to care for themselves and their music. You’ll read about the fascinating way that Carolyn O’Brien, in the depths of a depressive episode, created a compositional structure that allowed her to compose in the tiniest increments. You’ll find artists setting personal boundaries around relationships and social media. You’ll read about how today’s generation of composers are departing from the alcoholism of their teachers.

We look forward to a week of dialogue with these artists and with you, our readers.

Wit and Wisdom: Musicians On Being

Krista Tippett’s On Being, the widely syndicated NPR show formerly known as Speaking of Faith, doesn’t record interviews with just anybody. Each week, Tippett sits down for in-depth conversations with some of the most influential figures of the 21st century, from superstar poet Mary Oliver to the Thich Nhat Hanh, from “living saint” Jean Vanier to marketing guru Seth Godin.

With its expansive, hour-long format and intimate feel, On Being allows listeners to feel like they’re getting a one-on-one with today’s spiritual and creative heroes. Or maybe that’s just me—I’m a huge fan of the show and have chopped many rounds of vegetables in the kitchen while absorbing its wisdom and good vibes.

When a journalist like Tippett can interview anyone in the world, which musicians does she choose? And what does this tell us about musicians’ perceived impact in the wider world? Below, I’ve linked to five On Being episodes featuring musicians that Tippett found interesting enough to interview: engaging songwriters, legendary performers, and even a few composers of concert music. Although each interview is intended for an audience of musical laypeople, there’s some great stuff here for the field insiders, too.

Photo by Ben Brewer, via

Photo by Ben Brewer, via

Mohammed Fairouz: If you interpret “composer of concert music” strictly, Fairouz is the only On Being interviewee who fits the bill—and he’s not even thirty yet. Specialists may roll their eyes a little at the characterization of Fairouz as a “post-millennial Schubert” or gawk at the swaggering bravado he demonstrates when discussing everything from composition to statecraft. But there’s no question that Fairouz’s engagement with political issues has come to national attention. (NewMusicBox, of course, was way ahead of this and featured Fairouz in a Spotlight three years ago!)

Gustavo Santaolalla: Film music—perhaps our culture’s biggest remaining gateway into concert music—is the subject of this episode. Tippett chose Santaolalla because he’s scored some widely beloved films, including Brokeback Mountain, and makes compelling use of “world music” idioms such as tango. Santaolalla makes for a charming, slippery interview subject. He’s clearly an artist whose work is better experienced than discussed; he is congenial but refuses to “describe” or nail down his music with glib descriptions or sound bytes.

Meredith Monk: The wise, funny Monk is the perfect match for Tippett’s wide-eyed interview style. Monk is utterly endearing in this interview, and demonstrates her spiritual commitment to live performance: “When you are that present, and you are that awake,” Monk said excitedly, “the audience experiences the deepest part of themselves—and the whole situation becomes transcendent. The way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.”

Rosanne Cash: A fabulously intimate interview with the respected songwriter, author, and daughter of the late Johnny Cash. Lovers of the elder Cash will treasure her candid memories of her father, and her reflections on finding one’s creative voice are valuable for artists in every field. She tells an amazing story about the day she decided not to be a dilettante: “I was leading myself into an ever-narrowing corner with my work. I knew that if I kept dabbling, and trying to make hit records, and not going deeper into what I did or developing a mastery of it, that that was it. I was going to end up doing parodies of myself.”


Yo-Yo Ma: In Chicago, it’s starting to feel like the famous cellist is just a loyal friend who shows up at every party. Ma spearheads the ambitious, populist Citizen Musician initiative and is the Judson Greene Creative Consultant at the Chicago Symphony. In this interview, we get a taste of the idealism and boundless energy that have made him one of classical music’s most prominent figures. “I often ask musicians, do you think of yourself as your instrument? As a musician? Or as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three? I think the citizen part is towards the human part.”

Chicago: The Spektral Quartet goes to pieces (and rots)

Like Alice in Wonderland, I can’t tell if the Spektral Quartet is getting bigger or smaller.

At the quartet’s Saturday night concert, Snowpocalypse Antidote, I had the opportunity to reflect on “miniaturization” and the pleasure of small forms. Both in the evening’s single-movement “sampler pack” concert format, and more obviously in the quartet’s ringtone project Mobile Miniatures, Spektral is making a career of embracing the small, the brief, and the compact.

Yet they’re “doing small” in a very big way. After all, those ringtones may be miniatures, but there are more than 100 of them. And the concert may have been comprised of single movements, but to me and my companions that evening, it felt like a major program indeed.


One critic friend of mine recently described such concert formats as almost unreviewable, claiming that the potpourri of movements is anathema to a cohesive, comprehensible program. I haven’t attended one of Spektral’s sampler packs for a while, but I’ve had my skeptical thoughts too, especially as the quartet has made the format a touring mainstay and selling point. Yet my doubts dissolved in Saturday’s joyful atmosphere at the simultaneously posh and cozy Logan Center “performance penthouse.” The assembled listeners were like a large dinner party enjoying, one after another, the delightful achievements of seven excellent cooks. It was a tasting menu, to be sure, but the portions were substantial. And most importantly, when the main course arrived–Dave Reminick’s new work The Ancestral Mousetrap–the audience was fresh, energized, and ready to listen carefully to a five-movement world premiere.

The first work performed was American composer Stephen Gorbos’s Passage Through the City, which takes as its inspiration the experience of “walking Chicago’s city streets.” The work was created with project support from local arts incubator High Concept Labs. Gorbos, a Maryland-based composer, has written an approachable piece evoking the grind of Chicago’s streets in every sense: the earnest hard work, the often inhospitable climate, and the constant, admirable hum of human endeavor. The quartet’s palette here was one of luminous, mellow timbres, gorgeously matched.

Although violist Doyle Armbrust announced from the stage that the quartet had neglected–oops–to include much “slow music” in this program, it was the quartet’s refinement and sensitivity that emerged most clearly throughout the evening. The opening of Beethoven’s Op. 132 had a courageous sense of introversion; Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s reimagining of James Blake’s I Never Learnt to Share had gorgeous stillness and lyricism; Haydn’s Op. 33 slow movement featured a poised and tranquil solo from Armbrust. The playing of the quartet’s newest member, violinist Clara Lyon, has a particular brand of elegance which has expanded the quartet’s sound world in a lovely way.

Dave Reminick’s highly anticipated new work for “singing string quartet,” The Ancestral Moustetrap, burst onto this polished and refined stage with an impolite roar. Reminick’s concise, funny, and often dazzling music has found an able playmate in the poetry of Russell Edson–or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Edson, a cult figure commonly referred to as the “godfather of the prose poem,” died in April, while Reminick’s Ancestral Mousetrap was still being composed. As a literary figure, Edson was a firm iconoclast who once claimed to strive for a voice “having no more pretension than a child’s primer. Which may,” he added, “be its own pretension.”

In his 1975 essay entitled “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man,” Edson wrote:

How I hate little constipated lines that are afraid to be anything but correct, without an ounce of humor, that gaiety that death teaches! …

How I despise the celebrity poet!

You get the idea. Edson marched to his own drum.

In terms of their form, Edson’s poems are provocative in that some people didn’t think they count as poetry. In terms of their subject matter, they are provocative because they contain what literary critic Sarah Manguso described as “lots of defecation, lots of procreation … lots of animals, particularly monkeys … And let’s not forget: lots of old men and lots of death.”

It’s the death, and particularly the decay of the body, that Reminick’s text selection reveals a keen interest in. Two of the poem/movement’s titles, “Killing the Ape” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back to Life,” speak death for themselves. Two others, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast” and “Oh My God I’ll Never Get Home,” feature the disintegration of the human body. The final, “The Ancestral Mousetrap,” is the most lyrical, describing the trap’s cheese bait:

A mouse would steal this with his death, this still unspent jewel of intent.

Reminick’s score, and its performance Saturday night, was bracing, original, and often jaw-dropping. The first movement, “Killing the Ape,” offers a startling take on the soli/tutti vibe of a concerto grosso, as violinist Austin Wulliman and violist Armbrust each alternate between his usual instrument and a second, gamba-style instrument held between his legs. This movement makes excellent use of the ultra-slow bow speed that creates an unpitched click from individual “grains” of the bow hair. Armbrust, in particular, got his bow to click so loudly that several audience members jumped. All this was delivered beneath Lyon’s ballsy, unaffected delivery of the sung text. In terms of singing in The Ancestral Mousetrap, this is Lyon’s big jazz solo, and her earnest, amateur lounge singer vibe was appealing.

Spektral Quartet

The second movement, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast,” uses all four singing voices for the first time. Here, the quartet alternates admirably between singing in barbershop-style harmony and delivering the composite text a few syllables at a time. Throughout the piece, Wulliman and cellist Russell Rolen both reveal vocal and dramatic skill. It is a delight to hear their musical instincts take new form as they make choices about vocal vibrato, glissandos, and affect.

In the subsequent movements, “Oh my God I’ll Never Get Home” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back Into Life,” the story the players tell becomes more and more gruesome. (In a particularly memorable moment, Armbrust delivers the text “They slap his face. His cheek comes off” with sprechstimme gusto.) The horror of the musical and poetic scenario, with its grotesque insistence that the dead man “respond,” peaks as Wulliman cries: “No use! Under his jacket nothing but maggots and ribs! No use!”

Edson’s favorite grisly topics rarely make it to the concert stage, and for bringing them there in such bold fashion, Reminick is to be heartily congratulated. But there is more to Edson’s poetry–and Reminick’s piece–than the shock value of bodily function and decay. Hidden inside Edson’s horrific images are elegant fragments possessing the balance and mystery of a Zen koan: “the ape climbing out of the ape”; “the porridge into herself, or herself into the porridge”.

In the space between brutality and contemplation, a uniquely tender and comical musical work has been born–one that pays unrepeatable homage to the now-deceased poet. In these poignant renderings of Edson’s death-obsessed texts, we get the message loud and clear: It’s not funny that we’re all going to die, but then again, it is.

Poultry Jam: A Chicago Thanksgiving Playlist

Thanksgiving Turkey
Ah, Thanksgiving: a holiday as rich in calories as it is in cultural significance. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the greatest culinary day of the year, a twisted celebration of American colonialism, or the annual site of uncomfortable conversations with that conservative uncle of yours. For the turkeys, it’s mass carnage. For the vegetarians, it’s slim pickings. And for retail employees, it’s the beginning of the end. What’s the proper soundtrack for a day that means so many different things?
I’ve always loved This American Life’s annual Thanksgiving episode. They call it the “Poultry Slam,” and cobble together a bunch of stories that have some tenuous connection to poultry. Why reserve the tenuous connections for public radio alone? Why not canvas the work of Chicago composers for music that’s as complex as Turkey Day? Ira Glass, eat your heart out:

For the selfish and gluttonous: Are your niece and nephew fighting over the last piece of pie? Feel a pang when your spouse polishes off the last of the stuffing? James Blake can relate. Check out Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s arrangement of his song “I Never Learnt to Share,” written for and performed by the Spektral Quartet.

For the anxious and ambivalent: Alex Temple, The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. With its mysterious incidents taking place in Oklahoma cornfields or advertising-obsessed towns in California, this eerie piece is perfect for those who experience ambivalence (to say the least) when road-tripping to their towns of origin.

For the hunters: Jenna Lyle, How To Accidentally Kill a Crow. This stylish, humor-filled chamber work was inspired by the composer’s adventures shooting crows in her grandfather’s backyard in Georgia. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family.

For the argumentative: If the two saxophones in Eliza Brown’s Apart Together are sparring relatives, you’ve got a ringside seat for their brawl. The composer writes: “Like an ill-fated family gathering, it begins with a burst of energy and connection, periodically erupts into conflict, and peters out in a state of mutual alienation (the decoupling of the instruments from the performers’ mouths).”

For the birdwatchers: There’s a wintry Americana stillness to Luke Gullickson’s 2014 EP To Evening Lands. (Full disclosure: I played and sang a bit on this album.) It’s thankful music in any season. Check out the final track, Daedalus and Perdix.

For the spiritual, part 1: James Falzone, With Notes Almost Divine. Just when you thought this wide-ranging clarinetist and improviser couldn’t surprise you anymore, he has an original Advent hymn available as a downloadable PDF score on his website. Why can’t I download more composers’ work to sing with my friends around the table after a few glasses of wine?

For the spiritual, part 2: Augusta Read Thomas, Prayer and Celebration: a warm, gorgeous, brief chamber orchestra piece originally composed for a high school orchestra in Concord, New Hampshire.

For the Polish, and for those who miss Lee Hyla: This year’s holiday marks the first Thanksgiving that the late Boston/Chicago composer’s many admirers will spend without him. Listening to Hyla’s brilliant Polish Folk Songs is both pure delight–evoking an important Chicago ethnic community–and a reminder of someone deeply missed.

For the nervous host: Are you anxious about producing a holiday spread for, say, five adults and two children for the first time? Or is that just me? Well, one of the most crucial Thanksgiving decisions one can make is what music one grooves to while chopping, peeling, simmering, and stirring. I’m going with Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who just made the city proud by winning the Thelonious Monk Competition, one of jazz music’s most prestigious prizes. While you’re looking forward to the major-label release that’s part of his winnings, any of his gorgeous SoundCloud tracks are sure to soothe your nerves.

For anyone with a soul: Imagine if, in the year 1825, Beethoven was at your Thanksgiving table. When it was his turn to say what he was thankful for, he would grunt, “I’m grateful I’m still alive” and then compose this. It would be–and still is–kinda hard to compete with the Heileger dankgesang.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Chicago: A scavenger hunt of world premieres

It was Open House Chicago this weekend. Open House is, apparently, a worldwide celebratory architectural free-for-all phenomenon that started in London. But I’ve only ever experienced it in Chicago. Here, it usually falls in late October, when each rainstorm is a tender rite of passage that strips the city of a bit more color. I have a strong memory of spending one Open House weekend in Hyde Park, ducking out of the rain to explore hidden gems in Hyde Park. For me, that’s what Open House is about: it’s about what’s indoors. It’s about the time of year that we start to go inside. The season when we start to hurry a bit from doorway to doorway, putting our heads down, bracing ourselves a little as we go. On Saturday, the cold felt refreshing and energizing. Probably because I bundled up.

For several years running, Access Contemporary Music has “occupied” some of the featured spaces with little ensembles performing a new piece of music, written expressly for the space and occasion, every fifteen minutes. For three hours! With tens of thousands of people attending Open House, these mini-marathon pop-up concerts mean that world premieres by ACM composers receive a large and constantly rotating audience. It’s an exciting concept absolutely worth venturing across the gray, gray Chicago River for. On Saturday, the river was decidedly out of tourist mode: sidewalk closures on the west side of Wacker; crews tearing up something or other; more grit than sparkle.
I was headed to the DIRTT building — which, like so many spots one can explore during Open House, I’d never heard of before. Turns out it’s a high-end green architectural firm that had opened its 10th floor luxury “client lounge” to visitors. In residence between noon and 3 p.m. were cellist Nora Barton and violinist Myra Hinrichs, performing translucence by Romanian composer Gabriel Mălăncioiu. I watched them perform the work — a delicate and effective four-minute piece filled with fluttering false harmonics, passed-off long tones, and a brisk, rhythmic middle section that seemed to suit the earthiness of the surroundings — and then watched them chat with audience members.

One man in particular seemed new to contemporary music, and was open-minded and interested as he chatted with them about the challenges of performing the work. I personally just wanted to ask them what it was like to play a new piece so many times in a row:

Before I left, I visited the DIRTT roof deck and grabbed a cup of coffee from the decidedly modern coffee station opposite the musicians.
openhouse6 openhouse7 openhouse9
Sunday was not a fur-lined-hood day, not a day to hurry from doorway to doorway. It was the opposite: a perfect fall day, a day for a lighter jacket, a day to linger on the walk and enjoy whatever the wind might be doing to your hair.
Sunday’s only ACM Open House spot was at Union Station, where a duo by Tim Corpus was performed in Union Station. Ah, Union Station: the permanent home of chaos, confusion, and disorientation. It is so damn cavernous and never-ending. I wasn’t sure exactly where to go. The track boarding area where I’ve headed to the suburbs many times was deserted, which gave me the opportunity to record one of the strangest sounds in the whole city. Each numbered boarding track announces its track number, over and over again. Supposedly this is to help blind people find the correct track, but it makes for very disorienting ambient noise.

I headed to the overwhelmingly large Great Hall.
In a long-abandoned, paint-peeling room off the Great Hall — formerly the Women’s Lounge, and closed to the public for the past seventy years — is where I found clarinetist Christie Miller and cellist Desiree Miller performing music of Tim Corpus. The Union Station site, and its music, was particularly rich with Chicago history: Corpus chose to write his piece to accompany a letter written by Gertrude Adler in 1934, in which she mentions a visit to Union Station and Macy’s department store. The music was lovingly written and played, with a sense of nostalgia and tenderness in the mellow instrumentation and lyrical lines. And there were, rather inexplicably, giant Christmas ornaments in the corner.
Composer Tim Corpus chatted with an audience member about the space:

Seth Boustead was in the former Women’s Lounge, too, chatting with people in between the six-minute performances. Seth told me that the Open House performances are precisely the kind of thing he’d like to be ACM’s trademark: high-impact, scalable, and portable. The intimate duos mean that no performance gets unwieldy; the enormity of Open House means that composers are reaching larger numbers of people than they could otherwise. In fact, ACM will be a part of Open House New York this year, too.
Cheers from a city full of hidden corners, perfect for holding a bit of music on a fall weekend.

Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

From September 20-22, 2014, Chicago concertgoers had the rare opportunity to experience the music of the Wandelweiser group, the John Cage-influenced artistic collective based in Germany. An exciting example of Chicago arts institutions working together on a project too ambitious to spearhead alone, the Chicago Wandelweiser Festival was a joint endeavor between Nomi Epstein (composer and artistic director of and Peter Margasak (music writer and organizer of the Frequency Series at Constellation), with support from the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the Swiss Cultural Institute.
In spite of the relative aesthetic unity of the Wandelweiser collective, all three evenings of the festival offered something quite different. On the first evening, performed three works of Jurg Frey, celebrating the release of their new all-Frey disc, More or Less, with the composer in attendance. On the second evening, University of Chicago musicologist Seth Brodsky moderated a panel discussion between Frey, Epstein, composer Eva Maria Houben, and pianist Andrew Lee. After the discussion, Lee offered a solo recital featuring works by a variety of Wandelweiser composers. On the final evening, Houben gave a fascinating recital of her solo organ works in the amazing Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

Wandelweiser composers are known for embracing silence, fragility, and spontaneity. In preparing to attend the festival, I knew that it would demand a special kind of coverage. I wanted to create a sense of intimate dialogue about the music — the same kind of dialogue, perhaps, that these composers have with each other about their work.

But in order to have a dialogue, there has to be more than one writer. So I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.  What follows is the story of our experience of the festival.

Exhibit A: Scared to Write About Music
When: September 20, 2014, 8:27 p.m. – Concert #1
Where: A seat in the back row of Constellation / A stoplight at Belmont and Western, Chicago, IL
What: During an exchange of text messages, McSweeney follows up on Tham’s earlier email which mentioned that he’s been “scared to write about music lately.”
tham1 tham2

Exhibit B: Armrest Etiquette 
When: September 20, 2014, 8:41 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: Copies of the authors’ notes as the concert begins. Tham muses about who should get which armrest in a concert seating situation, while McSweeney notices the presence and absence of ego in Frey’s music.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, More or Less Normal, performed by

Exhibit C: Felt Like We Were Trapped
When: September 21, 2014, 8:58 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: As the concert continues, things get tense.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, 60 Pieces of Sound

Exhibit D: CRUNCH
When: September 27, 2014, 1:35 p.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: During a post-festival gmail chat, Tham reveals having had an accidental Wandelweiser sonic performance experience with a paper cutter.
Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.24.24 PM

Exhibit E: At Least We Tried
When: September 30, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: Tham expresses his aspirations for this article.

Chicago: Enter the Dollhouse—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre

Although I ostensibly attended eighth blackbird’s performance of Colombine’s Paradise Theatre—the new commedia dell’arte-inspired “fantasy” with score by Amy Beth Kirsten and direction by Mark DeChiazza—as a writer and art observer, I could not help absorbing it with the mind of a performer.

A 60-minute tour de force, performed completely from memory and without pause, Colombine’s Paradise Theatre is a stunning display of physical and musical virtuosity on the part of its performers. It is also a testament to eighth blackbird’s commitment to going the extra mile in the creation of new work. Only a mind-boggling amount of labor—memorizing the score and learning elaborate physical staging and choreography—could have produced such a performance.

Colombine demands significant risk-taking and courage from the ensemble. All six players must deliver physical movement and hissing speech parts with panache. Violinist Yvonne Lam, darting and dancing all over the stage as one of the Harlequins, sang frequently and admirably. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, in the role of Colombine, gave an utterly natural, unaffected performance of a cabaret-style song at the piano. Flutist Tim Munro was perhaps pushed furthest, completely abandoning the comfortable mask of the instrumentalist poker-face. He shrieked, sang, sobbed, and hissed his way through the role of Harlequin. When he exited, wailing his final falsetto lines, we had the sense that he had left his soul onstage.

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Kirsten’s score evokes diverse environments and moods, from cabaret to Sprechstimme, from witchy incantations to sparse percussion solos. Colombine is quite lyrical at times—particularly in the cello solos, played with great seriousness by Nick Photinos as the Harbinger. Yet the piece is dominated by scherzando whimsy and plenty of humor. Kirsten’s inventive use of doublings keeps the score full and lively at all times. She makes particularly effective use of nonsense syllables and percussive sounds to create spooky rhythmic patterns and textures.

The music is often organized to sound as if characters are inventing the musical material on the spot—repeating it in a testing, probing way, finally landing on a gesture that sticks. It sounds organic and improvisatory, but is completely notated. The pacing of each instrument’s “speech” allows Kirsten to create distinct musical characters in dialogue with each other.
The staging and direction by Mark DeChiazza is one of Colombine’s greatest strengths. It was clear both in the production itself, and in the post-concert discussion, that DeChiazza had generously embraced Kirsten’s inspirations and aesthetic. He has produced a visual and physical world which, while supporting the score, also has complexities and resonances all its own. Particularly ingenious was the way the set allows for a visual imitation of the instruments themselves: percussion setups hanging like chandeliers; metal tubes silently wielded as giant flutes.

While Colombine does not have a clear narrative, it is held together by an interesting set of potential questions. As the protagonist Colombine feels the tug of her various puppet-masters and suitors, we are encouraged to reflect on the power dynamics onstage: Who has agency? Who is excluded? Who has control over another? And what kind of contemporary commentary might the piece be making about commedia dell’arte?

For me, Colombine’s main limitation is that it doesn’t always offer a satisfying perspective on these questions. In particular, the choice to simply reproduce, rather than critically reimagine, the gender dynamics of the stock commedia characters feels like a missed opportunity. Contemporary listeners are quite familiar with the love triangle of two male characters “seducing” their puppet-like female ingenue, and it would have been exciting to experience a more contemporary twist on these patriarchal tropes. The virtuosic, erotic four-hands piano duo between Yvonne Lam and Lisa Kaplan—which helps Colombine pass the proverbial Bechdel test—is a promising moment. But their relationship never becomes thematically important, and in the end, the show doesn’t evince much more gender sophistication than the 16th-century texts that inspired it.

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

It might also have been fascinating to see the piece acknowledge—or better yet, dance with—the inevitable historical shadow of Schoenberg. But when asked during the post-concert discussion if she had been influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Kirsten seemed surprised. She firmly said no, and mentioned that she had made a point of not listening to the Schoenberg during the creative process of Colombine. Yet with a character named Pierrot, Sprechstimme scenes, a dark and moonlit set, and an almost identical instrumentation, it will be hard for the piece to make its way in the world without evoking Pierrot.

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

With its dazzling visuals, sumptuous score, and stunning performance, Colombine is a game-changer and a standard-bearer for the world of new music and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is sure to inspire an ambitious new crop of staged contemporary chamber music. This is perhaps why I wanted more to chew on theoretically and why I wanted it to be more than a fun, spooky confection. But when audiences enter Colombine’s macabre musical dollhouse—with a sensual surprise in every cobwebbed corner—they will probably, like me, be more than happy to play by her rules for the night.