Clouds and Clouds: Composing through the Fog of Depression
I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music. It has naturally been a constant question as to how it would manifest itself in my music; over time, a set of approaches has emerged, ways to address the illness to varying degrees.
I remember what first made me want to compose: the incredible power of music to transmute experience into sound, to bypass rational thought and trigger an emotional response. So what happens when that reliable reaction starts to malfunction, when once-vivid sensations start to seem increasingly distant and more difficult to recall? When daily existence becomes dull and flat, exactly what experience is there left to channel? How does your perception change when your memory doesn’t process new events in a normal way? What do you do when your primary emotional state is something you might prefer to evade rather than encode?
I suffered a mild breakdown at age 20 (the average age of onset, I’d later discover) that first landed me in psychiatric care. The diagnosis was confirmed soon after: major depression. This means I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music. Later slides were brought on by breakups, a hurricane, the sudden death of a close friend; each seemed to pull me down to a new low. The standard prescription for anyone with a history of two or more episodes of major depression is a lifetime of treatment and medication—which has helped, but not without introducing new complications and adjustments.
Depression is an illness that remains vastly underreported and widely misunderstood. The “who wants to hear about it?” mentality reigns, and that same question could be asked in the new music circuit. So much of depression is interiorized, directed inward, that it seems hard to conceive of how to convey that cloaked experience to a broader audience—if the motivation can even be mustered. The author William Styron, in Darkness Visible, his memoir of his own battles with depression, puts it this way: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”
Needless to say, there are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career. Introversion and anxiety can seriously hamper the capacity for self-promotion. Brooding introspection gets misread as aloof disinterest. It can be dauntingly difficult to shake off a dark mood and summon up some enthusiasm out of thin air, or to hold a frozen smile over the course of a conversation. Social and professional relationships often suffer as a result. Setbacks, which any artist is bound to face to some degree, can be debilitating (“rejection sensitivity” is the clinical term), provoking crises of confidence that get amplified out of all proportion. The resulting sense of pervasive loneliness feeds itself, rooted in a phenomenon psychologists call “hypervigilance for social threat” that Olivia Laing describes in The Lonely City:
In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion, giving them greater weight and prominence than other, more benign or friendly interactions. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn…. What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mold or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself.
The focus of this article however is the musical expression of depression. With this “storm of murk” (Styron’s term) brewing in my head for years, it has naturally been a constant question as to how it would manifest itself in my music; over time, a set of approaches has emerged, ways to address the illness to varying degrees. Not wanting to presume the state of mind of any other composer (even the well-known melancholic ones), I refer to examples only from my own work, asking in what ways living in a prolonged depressive mindset has shaped my creative output.
The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal. In the lucky moments when the weight of depression lifts, that burden tends to be the last thing you want to bring consciously back into focus. Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, one prominent way that depression has influenced my work is by opposition, in a strategy of evasiveness that I’ve come to think of as the Graceland approach. Think of Paul Simon, singing about heartbreak and calamity over catchy riffs and drum patterns: an outwardly vibrant demeanor that dances around the gloom that it’s actively obscuring.
Here was a way to compose around the issue, addressing it obliquely. Defying a pervasively grey interior life, I’ve immersed myself in composing pieces about color (Spinning in Infinity) and light (PolychROME). To combat disillusionment, I’ve written about the sensation of prolonged wonder (Writing Against Time), an invocation to resist slipping out of the spellbound present. There’s also the fantasy of getting away: travel (The Geography of Cities on Water), encounters with new cultures (Üsküdar, Tesserae), and romanticized adventure (Isolario, Anyplace Else) have fueled my work.
My affinity for this fast, busy, colorful mode of composing is rooted in the same reason why I love clashing patterns, rich food, bright colors, chaotic cities: you crave an overabundance of stimulation because only a fraction of it gets through the haze. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s explanation for why her characters are so grotesque: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock: to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Composing the blues away has been therapeutic, and has allowed me to step out of myself and cultivate an aesthetic of lightness, in the sense that Italo Calvino describes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities…” But the subtext of that carnival atmosphere is always the same: it is all ultimately distraction, divertimento, escapism. And after a while, like some medications, it stops being an effective antidote and the charm wears thin.
Sparrow Episodes (2006) starts in that vibrant world and moves on to a contrasting mode of experience. The piece opens with a cinematic sequence of about six minutes; technicolor episodes unfold like a comic book, with strong lines and bright colors. Ideas appear, get briefly developed, then cast away for something new. Experience flashes by so quickly that there’s barely time to decipher motifs, only to revel in the sensory excess.
The source that underpins these vignettes is a four-chord song from my high school days written by Myshkin, a singer-songwriter then living in New Orleans. Weighted with memories and personal connection, hearing that song transports me right back to a tangibly vivid time before my own first episode (a word used in the song, which itself talks about a breakdown and mental health). I wouldn’t expect any other listener to hear the same association of course, but I can depict the reeling sensation it brings back.
Writing from the distance of ten years, after my first breakdown, I could remember the vibrancy of that earlier time, yet felt entirely divorced and distanced from that feeling. “Depression makes us see life differently; it changes how we think,” notes psychotherapist Richard O’Connor in Undoing Depression. “Only rarely, if at all, do we remember that at one time we were happy, confident, active.”
The final two minutes slip into another world. Suddenly, we’re no longer participants but observers, watching with faces pressed against the glass, now one measure removed from the action. Recall, avoided for most of the piece, is now forcibly imposed: a delay pedal on the electric guitar churns patterns in an eight-second loop. Blank repetition replaces those earlier transient flashes, as if the saturated world of the opening is viewed in distant retrospect. The chord changes continue but disintegrate into a wash of diatonic echoes, somewhere between neutral and nostalgic.
The empty repetition of the loop pedal mirrors another thought pattern familiar to the depressive mind: rumination. Thoughts circle in a generally murky, low-energy swarm, simmering on a low flame and only occasionally bubbling to the surface with some degree of clarity. Escaping this obsessive but aimless way of thinking seems to be just another impossible task.
Recession (2009) recreates this aimless atmosphere in its opening bars. The piece was written in the midst of a relatively severe spell of depression, during my time studying at IRCAM. (“Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of melancholy,” Irwin Shaw wrote.) Yes, there had just been a global downturn, but I meant the title to refer to the astronomical definition of the recession: “the act of receding or withdrawing.” Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance, and I certainly felt myself drifting farther from the familiar that winter, withdrawing into an introspective gloom.
The piece opens with several layers of circling chords at different speeds, a texture of expanded microtonal accordion fragments that move in a ring of eight speakers surrounding the audience. Using pre-recorded and retuned melodies, I create a sort of reverse delay effect: loops that begin before the live instrumentalist plays a phrase. These fragments start at a great distance and work their way to the center, then move outward again in a fading loop, whose contour and pitch content are deformed as it moves in space. Against those melodic gestures, we hear a continuous layer of four-note chords spanning all registers, and a third layer: chains of triads that move at a faster speed, like a condensed version of these widely-spaced chords. The overall effect, to borrow William Styron’s phrase, is a “murky storm,” a slow churning of multiple ideas, constantly in motion but without clear direction.
Loops stand in for this kind of stuck thought process in several of my works: the opening of Blues Wrapped Around My Head (2004), the final movement of Waterlines (2005-2012). They work well for portraying a sense of being lost or stuck, and resigned to it.
At other times though, rumination becomes infuriating. Involuntary slides into cacophonous internal disputes seem impossible to control and grow increasingly disheartening. This frustration led me to think about what it would mean for repetition, which we normally think of as a key parameter for parsing music, to become intrusive. Rather than triggering a spark of recognition, what if repetition became grating and unwelcome?
There is a climactic passage in Visions and Revisions (2013) that dramatizes this thought process. We begin in a dreamy atmosphere. Over a soft and resonant pizzicato cello ostinato, framing a IV-I progression, fragments and motifs heard throughout the first two-thirds of the piece float into view. But these pleasant recollections soon transform into unwanted intrusions. Over the span of about 45 seconds, the ostinato itself becomes harsher, moving into snap pizzicati and scratch tones. The upper strings start to get agitated, as their lyrical recollections begin to abrupt crescendi. The tempo accelerates, giving the music an increasingly anxious edge. The passage is also inspired by the fifth verse of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” where the form of previous verses is extended by several lines (on Blonde on Blonde you can hear the session musicians struggling to follow), spilling over its frame in a way that sounds to me like obsession pushed past established boundaries, emotional forces redirecting the form.
There is a function in IRCAM’s Audiosculpt that removes all sinusoidal components from a sound, leaving only the residual noise — a skeletal, greyed-out version of the sonority. That transformation sparked an immediate emotional association: This spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience. Spectral music has made a habit of classifying timbre on a sliding scale from white noise at one end to a pure harmonic relationship at the other — a distinction that made instinctual sense as a powerful sonic metaphor for a familiar emotional state.
As early as the prelude of Sunflower Suite (2003), and as recently as PolychROME (2017), I have explored the use of noise sounds to signify greyness, or a lack of color. Leaving Lute (2011), my piece about moving back from Paris, is another strong example. I arrived in Paris wide-eyed and enthralled, but got progressively disenchanted with the city. I let that trajectory dictate a simple form: seven minutes of music, a minute for each year between 2003 and 2010 (with an interlude in Istanbul). Instrumental timbre follows the same emotional curve, gradually being drained of color and vitality.
The opening of each of these sections is punctuated by a five-note chord whose orchestration gets “greyer” with each appearance. At the opening of the piece, it is full of detail, shaped with crescendi that enliven the sound, doubled timbres that propel forward through an accelerando:
By its final appearance, the instrumentation has been thinned to a single high attack on the harp with a fingernail, while a scraping on low strings continues underneath. Flute and viola fill out the chord one or two pitches at a time, with pale, feeble entrances that trail off in downward glissandi. They join the noise texture, closing the piece with intermittent crescendi, the last sparks of a dying flame.
NOTE: To hear the last two pages of the score, cue to 6’26”.
This palette of grey, noisy sonorities comes up against a lot of misconceptions. In my work, these extended techniques that veer from pitch towards noise are not rebellious gestures, but are instead used as expressive colorings for the crevices of memory. What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music. My use of noise and extended techniques has nothing to do with subverting convention or an interest in physicality: it is simply a poetic expression of a lack of color. Still, I am far from the only composer to explore the expressive use of noise sounds; listen to Claude Vivier’s Wo Bist du Licht?, the opening of Julian Anderson’s Symphony, or many masterful pieces by Gerard Pesson, including Nebenstück or La lumière n’a pas de bras pour nous porter.
Another way of “greying” pitches is through the use of mutes and preparations. I continue to experiment with ways of polluting pure timbres by adding an inharmonic buzz: thimbles inside tuned cowbells, foil rattling on strings, antique kazoo mutes on brass—multiple shades of noise coloring these timbres..
Other mutes contribute a sense of both distance and strain, of struggling to emerge from under substantial weight. In The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, an elegy for Hank Williams, mid-register strings prepared with blu-tack sound a distant duet that mimics the clunky resonance of a palm-muted guitar, making this reinterpretation of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sound even more lost and lonely.
The fifth movement of Sunflower Suite (2003) gives an early example of expressive muting. It’s a melancholy end to a suite of exuberant pieces about the color yellow: a wordless setting of William Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower!” The cellist carries the melody with a practice mute, while the piano plays mid-register chords that have been dampened with a scarf. The violin plays the lowest part, having dropped its G-string to an F. The result is a trio playing a familiar texture through a timbral filter, now distant and struggling to balance, straining to be heard through a curtain of fog.
One of the most memorable descriptions of a depressed mode of existence can be found in John Barth’s novel The End of the Road. The depressive narrator has a dream about a weather report that concludes with the meteorologist announcing, in lieu of a forecast: “There isn’t going to be any weather tomorrow.” William Styron uses a similar metaphor: “The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.”
That flat mood, combined with a lack of energy and motivation, is one of the most pervasive experiences for sufferers of depression. Antidepressants can also interfere with emotional vitality; even as they alleviate the urgency and precarity of the condition, they may blunt empathy, leaving this sense of emotional numbness intact. “We are emotionally frozen,” says Dr. Richard O’Connor. “Instead of the normal fluctuations of happiness, sadness, disappointment, joy, desire, and anger that most people cycle through many times a day, depressed people feel a kind of gray neutrality that translates into subterranean tectonic shifts in mood.”
My most extensive foray into portraying the quagmire of depression is probably Creux (2018), a word that in French means “hollow,” or can be used to describe the trough of a wave, flattened between crests. Several of my pieces (Convergence Lines, Isolario, don’t know what alright even means) start at a “low point”— usually depicted as a grainy thud in the bass — but only Creux wallows around on the same static plane for its entire length, unable to jump out of its rut. Several of the instruments — Fender Rhodes, melodica, mbira, and multiple strings on the cimbalom, harp, electric guitar, mandolin, cello, and bass — have been retuned to a meandering microtonal mode which never settles on a central pitch.
In my sketchbook, one early idea for Creux was to create “music that tries to get going but never manages.” The entire drama of the piece unfolds in a limited register, with a restrained gestural vocabulary. There are no melodic lines, no real development, only glimpses of harmony. Single attacks can spread out into polyphonic textures, so the density of the music can momentarily increase, but it is always pulled back at the moment where this density might spill over into something new, thwarting a build-up and remaining stuck.
Ruts and Fugues
Amongst its most pernicious effects, depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory. Confusion and distraction are common symptoms; concentration gets shattered. While obsessive thinking replays past disappointments, sufferers remain effectively blind to the present. The hippocampus shrinks, impairing the formation and storage of new memories.
Rust and Stardust (2015) is a piece about these distortions of memory, a large-canvas work for orchestra that synthesizes all of the approaches mentioned above—defiant color, ruminative loops, grey noise, and restrained movement. The title is a shorthand for two possible ways that the mind can process a memory: corrosion or romanticization. Its form dramatizes the sudden drop of a breakdown and the non-linear path to recovery, complete with several detours that portray dysfunctional thought patterns associated with depression.
The piece opens with a crescendo on a still string chord under twinkling percussion that accelerates into a brief glimpse of excitement; harmonic interjections and sparks of color build up to a mock romantic line with a swooping horn and cellos—until, at [0:44], the bottom drops out. That exuberant richness is no longer accessible, supplanted by a grey wash of noise and aimless patterns that turn in place.
What follows is an attempt to recover that initial vitality, to reinvigorate and string together fragments of the cordoned-off past. The moment of collapse is replayed repeatedly with minute variations, like a traumatic memory being relived and distorted as it is imprinted in the brain; only after many iterations does that fixation begin to lose its jagged edges and loosen its grip, allowing new lines and shapes to emerge [2:03].
The recovery is anything but steady: There are ruts, like scratches in vinyl, that skip back to moments heard seconds before [2:17-2:28]. There are sudden slips into fugue states, blank spaces where all motion and development momentarily cease [2:28-2:45, and again at 3:42-4:01]. A trumpet flourish eventually emerges [6:05, 6:12] that will play the role of the intractable obsessive memory.
These insistent loops build up until a second crash lands us in another whirl of white noise—a steeper, more debilitating slide [7:38]. This time, the mechanisms of memory and development are entirely broken. Recollected fragments keep intruding, but now the wrong details, the insignificant background elements, are the ones that stick, magnified out of all reasonable proportion. The stuck trumpet loop gets discarded for an even more banal figure [8:15]. Repetition becomes rote and pointless, and the frustration mounts towards a monolithic burst of noise [9:46].
But the piece ends with a silver lining: those blocks of noise lift to reveal a delicate texture of string harmonics and high metallic percussion. For once, the memory is processed in a “healthy” manner: each intrusion gets lighter and softer, shedding its weight as it recedes and fades from consciousness.
It’s easy enough to tack on an optimistic stroke to the end of a piece, but far harder, of course, to maintain that kind of emotional upswing in reality. Depression is an illness that is always liable to resurface: About half of those with major depression will experience at least one relapse. Worse, the threshold for triggering new episodes seems to get lower, leaving sufferers increasingly susceptible. Antidepressants can help to sustain a level mood, but it can take time to work out a proper regimen of medication; even then, the effectiveness of a given drug may wear off as resistance builds.
I resisted medication for a long time, out of a fear that I think many artists share: namely, that the drugs might interfere with my creative work. Would there be a tradeoff for a moderated mood? If antidepressants blunted my emotional responses, would I lose touch with the extreme highs and lows that inspired me to write in the first place? If my personality were to be chemically altered, would I still be writing my music? Those are legitimate concerns, but ultimately—for me, at least—not a powerful enough counterargument to seeking help.
It would be tempting to argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression, that art spins gold out of grief—but that would be far too simplistic. For many, composing just may not provide a sufficient outlet or distraction, and for any given composer, it may not even always be reliably therapeutic. Furthermore, it would be wrong to advocate that every artist with a mental health disorder should confront the issue overtly in his or her work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling depression; neither is there one prescribed way to address depression in art. Like any other aspect of identity, the degree to which personal experience speaks through one’s music is a choice that each artist has to make.
But for composers who embed and listeners who decode these intimate messages, there is concrete value in shared experience. It can increase awareness, fight isolation, chip away at a stigma. In the best of cases, it can make you feel less alone. And in the wake of the upheaval we’re all currently living through, with the incidence of depression and anxiety likely to skyrocket, that may count for a lot.
One perennial reminder arrives whenever I fill out a new job application. I’m confronted with an opportunity to disclose an impairment: “Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities,” says the form, followed by a list of afflictions that I am somehow still surprised to see includes my own. But unlike with physical impairments, it might not be immediately obvious what kinds of accommodation could be offered to sufferers of major depression. So I’d like to suggest a few possibilities: Be mindful of what others might be going through. Dig beneath their closed, cool veneer by showing earnest interest. Exercise patience and empathy. Understand that not everyone has the same degree of resilience. Listen with attuned ears for contours that resonate with your own experience, but dig deeper to decipher unfamiliar emotional undercurrents embedded in other people’s music. That may just be a way of reaching out.