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

Composer Carolyn O’Brien calls on her ingenuity and strength to create through, and with, severe depression. Read her on the importance of formal structure, a sense of play, and a great husband.

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

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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.