Tag: composition

In Praise of Unremarkable Music: Part 1

Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?

In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:

  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives.
  • The size of audiences it attracts.
  • The money it makes.
  • The joy you had in creating it.
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level.
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed.
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs.
  • The social impact it has.

Given your creativity, I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other metrics (and I’d be curious to hear them).

But it should be obvious that rarely, if ever, does a piece of music succeed across all these dimensions. Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable. Because individuals and groups value these various dimensions differently, no piece of music can be universal in its appeal or usefulness. Even Bach can be considered an also-ran by many people in many contexts. Thus, it is not intellectually or socially honest to ask, “Is Piece A better than Piece B?” without being able to identify the terms of comparison and explain why those terms matter.

Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable.

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that our prized repertoire is not inherently more worthy than other music. It may further seem counterintuitive to consider that the uninteresting and mediocre, or even the lackluster and substandard, may help us achieve our goals better than our lodestars—not just as cautionary tales but as exemplars themselves.

What does unremarkable music have to teach us about achieving our goals?

On a social level, we all share a fundamental need for validation and belonging. Though some composers may be content to write for themselves, most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us. Regardless of whether we get paid, a large part of what we do constitutes a gift to our collaborators and communities. We hope our music may inspire, challenge, stimulate, touch, or delight those who hear it. When that gift is poorly received or rejected, it stings.

Most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us.

This sting can be all the worse because many of us hold ideals of meritocracy and social justice. We believe that the good and the marginalized should have at least an equal seat at the table as the powerful and the privileged. Further, we want to believe that our music has merit. When that merit is ignored—particularly because of structural discrimination—we feel a righteous sense of injustice.

But from what table does that injustice exclude you? And from what power? Indeed, to whose aesthetic values are you trying to appeal? Or whose opinions are you trying to influence?

Often, our success as composers is only loosely based on how good our music is. And as inarguable as the benefits of power and privilege may be, they hardly constitute the only way to create and sustain communities. Further, the powerful and the praised are not the only communities worth serving or creating. (On these points, see also Elliot Cole’s article “Questions I Ask Myself.”)

This, then, is what unremarkable music can teach us socially: our success as composers, however you want to measure it, reflects most strongly the quality of the relationships that our music fosters. As humanity’s most ephemeral artifact, music may catalyze these relationships, but it cannot constitute their substance. Inasmuch as your music enables you to make others feel seen, treasured, cared for, and empowered, it can be said to be doing its job.

We are not fundamentally composers: we are human beings who use music to love others.

Likewise, other people are not fundamentally our audience: they are human beings with a rich capacity to receive and reciprocate that love.

Whenever we connect with other people through our music, it constitutes only a part of the whole relationship. Even our ties to the so-called “great composers” have just as much, if not more, to do with the myths and institutions built around them as they do with their music. Why, then, do we insist that our professional status must stand or fall primarily on our scores and recordings? You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music. So, too, we can only fully cultivate our professional impact through the stories we tell, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the memories we make, and so on.

You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music.

It should be obvious that you don’t have to be stereotypically successful to do this. Anyone—the 17-year-old YouTuber, the part-time production music composer, the obscure grad student, the band teacher from Montana—can make an impact through these means.

Still, when that impact goes viral, it can leave some observers bemused, jealous, or defensive—an honest reaction, inasmuch as its roots go deeper than common pettiness. These roots tap into the implicit messages behind certain measures of success, messages about which relationships matter more than others. For many of us, it requires a great struggle to uproot our uncritical embrace of these values. Does the New York Philharmonic and its milieu truly matter more than the seventh graders of the Springfield Middle School Band and their families? Is the only route to financial security truly through becoming an A-list Hollywood composer?

Yes, attaining such stereotypical success through “remarkable” music will constitute impact and bring influence, and these are not unworthy goals. Yet unremarkable music can be subversive and transformative in ways that music of “merit” cannot achieve. Think of punk rock. Think, too, of educational and film music. Despite all the flack that these genres receive in some quarters, many of us became composers because we loved John Williams’s Star Wars scores or Eric Whitacre’s choral works. That these examples are wildly successful in some spheres but disparaged in others serves only to underscore my point: whose opinion matters?

This disconnect between impact and merit brings to mind the common aphorism, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It, in turn, resonates with a “philosophical conundrum” in ethics that Agnes Callard explains in a recent essay:

Morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity, and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

To this conundrum in music, I propose an answer akin to Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru: Sidestep the issue. Rig the test. Embrace what is unremarkable about your music. Cherish it. Prize it. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop trying to convince the haters.

Embrace what is unremarkable about your music.

This isn’t to say we should stop fighting for a more perfect world (never!). Still, in this present, imperfect world on a Tuesday afternoon, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “there are alternatives to fighting.”

Part 2 of this article will show how some of those alternatives emerge from identifying why unremarkable music bothers us personally.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Admitting I Had A Problem

Pathway to sunset

When you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you try anything to fix the problem.

When you also suffer from crippling anxiety, then you may find yourself too scared to deal with the problem head-on. At least, that’s the vicious cycle I found myself in.

And most importantly, sometimes the problem that you think is the root cause is nothing more than a symptom.

I had not been able to make the moves or get the traction in my music career that I had wanted. I thought a change of scenery would do me good.

This was confirmed for me when, in August of 2018, I isolated myself in a hotel room in Billings, Montana, for a week to complete my oratorio for the Indianapolis Opera.

I was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Eastern Rite Catholicism in college, and when David Starkey at Indianapolis Opera had asked me for a piece, I had set a few guidelines for myself:

  1. I wanted to do a piece that reflected my Hoosier upbringing
  2. I wanted to reflect my love of Orthodox chant
  3. I wanted to use a Hoosier poet

I fell in love with the work of Kenneth Rexroth because of his innate spirituality, which I connected with on a very personal level. “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is particularly interesting to me. Morgan Gibson, Rexroth scholar, writes that “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is “more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is broken by the thought of the inevitability of death for both individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.”


It was this natural piety that gave me a cathartic week in the Montana backwoods and allowed me to finish this work. As I did, I reflected on how far I had come in my healing after the end of my abusive marriage and how far I had to go. I came to realize that I had to make more changes to deal with my depression and anxiety.

In January of 2019 I followed my gut on a two-year-long dream and decided to move to Mexico City. I was looking forward to starting over, new and anonymous, in a beautiful city that I love with all my heart. I naively imagined I would set up in my apartment, begin writing immediately, and life would fall into its place.

I was wrong.

While I had treated the symptoms of my PTSD and worked on accepting the loss of my marriage, I had never dealt with the underlying issues of depression in a medical way. I had lost weight and regularly exercised, but nothing else seemed to help.

“Me da una caja de sertralina, porfa.” One simple sentence completely changed my life. After a bad fight with my partner, and despite a previous terrible experience with psychiatric medication, I started taking Zoloft, an antidepressant, to help me regulate my moods and panic attacks.

A week later I sat down at my desk and began sketching my next work. I only got about ten seconds of music, but it was a victory beyond victories for me. For someone who was so tied up in and so consumed by anxious thoughts surrounding my writing and my work, being able to sit and focus seemed near impossible. And yet, I was able to sit and focus for a time, long enough to focus and complete sections of a work that I had been trying to write for close to nine months.

When I shared with a few people that I was starting this drug I was told a bunch of horror stories about how I’d never be able to write again, that I should find a “music counselor” (whatever that is), that Picasso/Seurat/Rexroth/Beethoven/Insert-name-of-an-artistic-juggernaut never medicated themselves, they turned their anguish into art, or any number of horrible things.

At first I responded.

“The truth is, many of the juggernauts of the past drowned themselves in opium and alcohol and every other substance under the sun trying to regulate themselves.”

“The truth is, I have to figure out a way for me to be okay.”

“The truth is…”

About two weeks after the anxiety started to fade, I realized I didn’t need to respond to other people. Responding to them didn’t do anything to change any minds, all it did was validate people’s own beliefs. I realized that I did not need to justify my medical decisions to anyone but myself.

For the first time in years, I could see that things would be okay. It became easier to tackle and take apart problems in front of me.

Most importantly, I realized relationships, work, school, art…indeed life, could be okay.

It will be okay. My life is becoming okay. Once I got help, I felt as if the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and I was able to finally move to where I needed to artistically.

Show Up, Stay Awake, and Tell the Truth

A printed score manuscript, headphones, and a coffee mug.

I’ve long cultivated the habit of showing up at the drafting table every morning to compose. Since, I’ve reasoned, I wasn’t endowed with a particular ability to write fabulous music spontaneously, I needed to work (and work and work) on the details in order to produce something that I could be happy with.

Nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge.

But nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge. Our lives are composites of what we turn our concentration to, and if I’m turning my concentration to things other than composing, then those things become my focus and, in essence, my life. I think at the drafting table.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin told poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Il faut Travailler, toujours travailler [It’s necessary to work, always work]. And, when one does this, the work becomes the focus. It’s true that in the act of composing (painting, writing, etc.) friends and family may be sidelined. Often, time devoted to work is a trade-off. There is a Faustian price to be paid, but it comes more under the category of “things left undone,” rather than a Stones-like deal with the devil. Papers sit ungraded (if, like me, you’ve selected the academic route), meetings are left unattended (or at least not acted on), and class prep is circumvented.

Outside of the studio, you may show up and meet people who will change your life in positive and artistic ways. Late one Sunday night, I went to a club to hear a jazz guitarist I’d heard of around town and, there being no one else there, he talked to me at length during the break. It turns out that we shared many common interests in jazz and new music. Based on that conversation alone I ended up playing percussion with his band for the next three years—the meeting led to an economically cheerful situation and was musically enriching in the long run.

I was a guest on a radio show to promote a festival on which I was playing in Marseille, France. Seven festival performers were crowded around a mic. I ended up next to a saxophonist I’d never met before and, there on the radio, we improvised together for the first time. Afterwards he graciously invited me to his house and we ended up playing many gigs in the south of France for the next seven years. What if I’d demurred when asked to be on the radio because my French abilities were atrocious?

Other connections have led to performances, sudden improvisations, friendships, and projects. But such things don’t happen if we don’t show up. It’s hard sometimes to make an appearance. There are mornings when I don’t want to compose, evenings I don’t want to go out. At heart, I’m a hermetic sort of person who appreciates staying home to read Finnegans Wake aloud in my best Lucky Charms brogue while sipping Jameson. That desire keeps me home and makes showing up for the next morning’s writing session difficult from an excess of whiskey.

But, composing is habitual. At fifteen, I was obsessive about practicing the banjo. Did I say “practicing”? Playing is more accurate. I worked out enough technique to sit in my room and play (and play and play). One evening my father came up to call me to dinner. He stopped in the doorway and said, “You know, if you want to become a professional musician, you’re going to have to practice even when you don’t want to.” My dad perceived that I was playing and not practicing. I don’t know if he realized that he’d just told me something that would change my life, but that is advice I’ve embraced and remember even now on those mornings when I don’t feel like working.

The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, and problems. That approach teaches me nothing.

Showing up brackets other components. One is to stay awake to the surrounding environment, i.e., listening: listen to the music, listen to random sounds, listen to what is being said. The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, problems, etc., ad nauseum. That approach teaches me nothing, shuts out others, and is ultimately (sometimes suddenly) alienating. It’s better, I’ve discovered, to listen. We’re musicians; it shouldn’t be so hard. But shutting up and staying awake can be difficult. I’ve missed things in classes, seminars, workshops, and potentially interesting conversations by, most literally, sleeping, or by just not paying attention.

Another element of showing up is telling the truth. If I’m going to show up, I need to present myself as the person—the composer—I am truly. I won’t fool anyone anyway by trying to be something I’m not. One must compose what they want. After studying serial music for a number of years, I didn’t want to compose in that manner anymore. I started integrating folk melodies into my work and my music became more tonal sounding.

When I first heard John Adams’s Harmonium, I hated it. Couldn’t understand why a composer in this day and age would compose like that after all of the “ground-breaking innovations” of the past century. But I kept listening and, soon thereafter, when I was commissioned to write a short composition for orchestra, I found myself gravitating very much toward his tonal and orchestrational vocabulary.

Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

My short composition for orchestra was eventually selected for a festival. At the wrap party, a selection-panel member hauled me aside and told me that he had strongly advocated for “that type of a piece” to be represented in their programming. Apparently, he had to really argue for its inclusion. One must be true to oneself in composing. Don’t worry about the audience (and especially don’t worry about what other composers think). If you’re being honest, the audience and critics will respond honestly. Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

Each of these components—showing up, staying awake, and telling the truth—is hard to accomplish at one time or another. I’m my worst enemy. As already described, I have to fight myself to show up. It’s hard to pay attention, and it’s sometimes hard to be honest in what I say and to write the music that is truly self-expressive without the imagined spectre of critics looking at me askance.

But, showing up, remaining aware, and being truthful to a personal artistic vision and to others seem to be primary keys in making things happen. While it’s not certain that anything will happen by being fully present, aware, and honest, it’s definite that nothing will happen if you’re not.

Channeling the Messengers

It was a lovely June evening in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. I was playing banjo with cellist Hank Rober­ts, bassist Robert Black, and Robert Mirabal, who sang and played drums and flutes of the Pueblo tribe. One of Hank’s tunes called for us to make animal sounds. Something about this evening’s performance induced in me the sense that I was channeling those sounds, not just making them. I closed my eyes and don’t even remember what noises came out, but it seemed as if they were not coming from, but through me.

That’s a sensation I occasionally have at the drafting table when composing and, sometimes, when soloing on stage, my focus seems more of a trance than just mere concentration. A lot of times, work I do at the drafting table seems like . . . well, like work. Ideas are hard to come by and I often will end up with 30 to 50 pages of pencil sketches before things begin to flow. Apparently, I have to get every bad idea I’ve ever had out onto paper before something else takes over. I think of this something as the muse.

And yes, I stereotypically think of the muse as a her, a Galadriel-like presence that demands to see a certain amount work and effort put into a project before she will add her thoughts, Elven Waybread, and much better ideas to the project. But she first needs to see obeisance to the work and effort. Otherwise, I fear, she’ll just move on to someone else. Always before this moment, I know exactly where the ideas come from and I’m conscious of a “pre-compositional” plan that I may have created and which I am trying to follow. Pages and pages of scrawls (and doodles, which I believe help me think) collect. But, when the muse kicks in, I get rid of the plan, get out of my own way, toss many of the sketches, and start to play. And I have no idea where the ideas come from.

A number of years ago I attended several workshops led by the iconic experimentalist in photography, Jerry Uelsmann. One time he counseled the students to “work every day. Don’t take any days off. But go into the studio and, instead of working, play.” That’s a lesson I’ve sometimes succeeded in adhering to. His images display a great deal of creative play and, in my mind, a metaphysical tap into a dream-like, surrealist land.

Careful analysis, planning, and past musical studies I believe are a part of the process for a composer and musician. All of the listening, performing, and writing I’ve done before are part of this. Technique is essential before one can make it non-essential. When I taught music theory, I told my students to learn the process of, say, part-writing, so that they could later forget it. The idea is to integrate the concepts of logic and structure that is inherent in creative development into their own work and to eventually bypass the specific rules for a larger concept of discipline and expression.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s a timeworn argument that upsets a number of artists. (I know, I’ve been on the receiving end of this consternation.) Yes, the work needs to be applied and the technique needs to be in place, but, if we’re truly doing our job, then a certain level of informed ignorance is intrinsic to the process. A foundation of technique needs to be in place before that technique is discarded.

In The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1957-58, the visual artist writes that “no artist will be at ease with an opinion that holds him to be a mere handy-man of art, the fellow who puts the paint on.” (Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 22). That’s not what I’m saying; if we’re doing our work, that means we’ve done our work, laid a foundation from which to develop our own creative expressions of the reality around us. We then open up to something larger than our individual selves. Shahn counters this later on:

But the subconscious cannot create art. The very act of making a painting is an intending one; thus to intend and at the same time relinquish intention is a hopeless contradiction. . . . But the great failure of all such art, at least in my own view, lies in the fact that man’s most able self is his conscious self—his intending self. (Shahn, p. 44).

All I can counter is that life is full of mysterious contradictions: individual consciousness succeeds nothingness and proceeds eventually to nothingness; and there is no absolute right and wrong in many instances, though we draw battle lines and die for our beliefs (especially in academic settings). Intention is important to hang on to before we then turn that intention over to the muse and let the unconscious take over.

As a student of Charles Wuorinen in the 1990s in Buffalo, I asked him to teach me serial technique, as I had never really studied it in much depth. Over time he showed me how to structure a composition using Milton Babbitt’s time-point techniques. Eventually I told him that I was concerned that this technique would just render my music similar to the music of many other composers at the time. “All creativity comes from a higher power,” he responded, “you just have to trust in that.”

“All creativity comes from a higher power, you just have to trust in that.”

I learned to put my faith in that maxim. I devoted myself to a daily practice of composition as taught by Uelsmann and as demonstrated to me by Wuorinen, Donald Erb, David Felder, Peter Maxwell Davies, and other teachers I encountered—not in order to create a large body of work for posterity, but so that I could keep improving and developing. Stephen Pressfield says in The Artist’s Journey, at the beginning of the chapter titled “The Artist’s Journey is Dangerous,” that “the artist, like the mystic and the renunciant, does her work within an altered sphere of consciousness. Seeking herself, her voice, her source, she enters the dark forest. She is alone. No friend or lover knows where her path has taken her.”

So, I invoke the muse each morning before composing. (Pressfield says that he “prays” to her before beginning work.) And I follow John Cage’s advice to “begin anywhere.” That truly works for me. Instead of staring at the blank page and thinking too much, I just start. And what I write may be crap, but it’s important for me to work, to be in motion. I think at the drafting table. Without Mozart’s precocious ability to compose an entire piece in my own limited brain, I show up at the drafting table and begin to scrawl. George Gershwin once said that “I write 15 songs a day, and that’s just to get the bad ones out of my system.”

Somewhere as a beginning composer, even though I lacked much technique or experience I somehow realized that if I was going to write anything good, I would have to compose “a number of stinkers.” And that was exactly what happened. It’s a diurnal habit and my day feels incomplete if I somehow don’t compose, preferably first thing in the morning.

Octavio Paz says in his epic poem, A Draft of Shadows:

Are there messengers? Yes,
space is a body tattooed with signs, the air
an invisible web of calls and answers
Animals and things make languages,
through us the universe talks to itself.

[ A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems New Directions, 1997, Trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 147]

This is something I truly believe. As musicians and composers, not only do we need to craft the art of deep listening, as Pauline Oliveros might call it, but to extend that depth to channeling the messengers—ultimately and essentially our own interior voices—that speak to us.

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

Depression banner thin

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!

My Neck, My Back: Composing through PTSD and Chronic Pain

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Welcome to day three of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. For an introduction to the series, start here. To read Marcos Balter’s interview on anxiety and compositional pressures, go here. 

Jenny Olivia Johnson‘s gorgeous new essay needs no introduction. Jenny has ventured into deeply personal territory, sharing her unique experience of sound, color, trauma, and the body. May we allow the mystery of this essay to remain, just as it is. Thanks for your generosity, Jenny. — E.M.  


“Physical pain has no voice, but when it at last finds a voice, it begins to tell a story.”

“When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth.”

—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World


The author, Jenny Olivia Johnson.

Start with my lower back. The pain I experience there is constant, a squirming spiral, sometimes teal in color, sometimes yellow, sometimes red; sometimes screaming, sometimes a low moan, always muffled, never clear. This is not a region I have yet learned how to listen to sonically, to tap into for musical inspiration. My back is my Mount Everest. Perhaps someday I will be able to scale and climb and probe its interiors and listen to its hollow, haunted songs, and ventriloquize them into compositions. For now, it’s a no-fly zone, off limits even to me; I am told by my body simply to protect it, like a sealed Pandora’s box, and be sure not to drop it or throw it out or otherwise disturb its private sanctuary between my lumbar spine and pelvis.

Move next to my chest, another yellow space. This is where I have learned to store most of my direct emotional pain, in the form of physical tightness and racing heart. This is the space from which many of the louder, more bombastic compositions I have written were born. My chest is a place I look to when I need some music that will rattle bones and puncture ears. Music that screams, especially when I feel I cannot.

From there, my throat. In this aqua-marine cylinder, slick with liquid choking sobs, I have stored memories of stifling tears, because the physical memories of things I have experienced elsewhere, in regions below my spine, were ones that I did not (and maybe do not still) have language for. The pieces that I have made from the aqua cylinder of my throat are often extended, lyrical, sliding, connected, sostenuto and quiet; emotive and pretty and unoffensive; all the things I was supposed to be even when my chest and back were screaming at me otherwise. It’s not my favorite music that I have written.

Finally, my amygdala: what I imagine to be a squishy purple bean, lodged but quaking like an active volcano between the tan mattresses of my subcortex, pulsating with red cartoonish lines indicative of movement. This is a space consistently flowing over with adrenaline, fight or flight, a liquid-solid hybrid activated on high crimson alert at all times. I don’t produce much music from this space. Instead, these curved and pliable hallways offer me words and language and scholarly sentences about traumatic experiences, somatic emotional memories, and the unique and terrifying ways that music can call them forth. These sentences, however, are often as repetitive and hypnotic as my music.

All of my work interconnects deeply around themes of remembering trauma and pain. I have come to realize that the way I conceptualize memory in both my music and my scholarship is according to a language of the body—a vessel that, when in pain, often has no language, as Elaine Scarry elegantly posits. Trying to describe physical and emotional pain often leaves people tongue-tied, and it has become something of a truism that music, which might “transcend” or side-step the specificity of language, has greater potential to express the pains of the body as experienced on emotional and physical registers.

Music also—as has long interested me—seems to have the potential to call forth and articulate pains of the body whose origins are intensely emotional but largely mysterious. This is a category of experience well-known to many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for instance, who often—as Judith Herman has written in Trauma and Recovery—remember what happened to them as acute physical sensations with no accompanying details.

JOJ tarot

A tarot card cartoon by the author, reimagining the 6 of Swords.

I have written several articles about sexual abuse survivors who experience mysterious physical sensations when they hear certain songs or sounds. Some of them know instinctively that these physical sensations are “memories” of having been abused, even when the material or temporal realities of these experiences remain shrouded in doubt, or evacuated of detail. I have approached the sounds and songs that call these physical experiences forth by considering the possibility that the sound had perhaps been present in the background of the abusive event, or—on a more musicological level—could perhaps contain sonic details that semiotically indicate the kinds of physical sensations these survivors’ bodies had experienced while abused, such as moaning or sighing voices, trembling, wet-sounding strings or synthesizers, whispering breaths, or relentless, sexual bass patterns. I have posited that these sounds, regardless of how they were able to conjure a particular survivor’s physical memories, were able to “witness” and “testify” to what had happened, even when the person who inhabited the body could not. I have attempted to account for these survivors’ experiences by comparing them to the phenomenon of sound-sensation synaesthesia, in which music triggers an immediate and involuntary sensation within another sense-modality, such as a G major chord appearing orange, or a low E on a distorted guitar smelling like gasoline. My turn to an essentially neurological category of experience to attempt to explain an emotional somatic response to music was driven by my desire to posit that music itself—a physical phenomenon which disrupts air molecules and vibrates bodies—might traffic in the same kind of language as a human body responding to the stressors of its environment: tightening, loosening, storing, and motivically remembering the specific kinds of motion that certain emotional or physical experiences inspire, and connecting those movements to an intricate narrative history.

My own narrative history, as I explored above, can be traced within the curves and hollows and tissues of my body. I can attempt to explain it to you in words, and these words might be intriguing or curious, but ultimately I will feel as though I am explaining how sunshine feels on my face to someone who lives on Neptune. I believe it is for this reason that I became a composer: when I first encountered music, I realized it was a language that could not only communicate directly with my body’s pain, but could also—if I too could learn to speak it—allow me to unravel secrets my body has kept from me.

E major is a painful ocean blue, A-flat major is a rich red key of love, E-flat minor is a warning stormy cobalt, G major is a balmy orange sun. These keys have opened a conduit of information between myself and my body. Once upon a time, as a small child, I lived in a sunny place near a beach and experienced something I have carried with me ever since. It’s a narrative I am still grappling with and unraveling, a labor I can only begin to achieve through composition, through communion with the sounds that know my body. In that sense, my practice of composing music is a physical discipline, a daily regimen of managing and hopefully one day overcoming inexplicable pain.

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.

Jamie Baum: Jazz Diplomacy

For flutist Jamie Baum, the formula for what she calls a “complete musician” consists of three parts: performing, composing, and improvising. In her mind, these three activities combine in an organic way to create a rich, full musical life, and she does it all—and more—in spades. Since the 1990s, she has been composing music for her own ensemble, playing with top-notch musicians such as Paul Motian, Randy Brecker, and Fred Hersch, leading workshops on a number of topics including improvisation for classical musicians, and presenting her music to audiences around the globe.

Much of Baum’s work has been inspired by elements of 20th-century classical, Indian, and Afro-Latin music, worlds between which she nimbly moves as a performer. Her 2004 album Moving Forward Standing Still takes musical cues from Stravinsky, Ives, and Bartok, all composers who were important for her during her early composition training at the New England Conservatory. The music on her most recent release, In This Life, is deeply influenced by a tour through South Asia, and specifically by the music of Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In both cases she deftly weaves elements from diverse musical sources through her own prodigious artistic imagination to create compositions that sound highly distinct yet perfectly natural at the same time. Her ensemble, the Jamie Baum Septet, is comprised of flute, piano, trumpet, French horn, alto sax doubling bass clarinet, drums, and bass, and expands with the additions of guitar and hand percussion such as congas and tabla to form the Jamie Baum Septet +.

Baum says that one of her musical goals has always been to make the flute a primary ensemble instrument, rather than simply an instrument for doubling or a secondary textural element as it is sometimes viewed within a jazz music context. The somewhat unusual instrumentation of her group is intended to help give the flute more weight within the ensemble texture and to provide different musical coloring options than the standard grouping of trumpet, alto, tenor, and baritone sax or trombone. However, never having been one to save all the big soloing opportunities for the leader of the band, she is happy for the flute to become an inner voice and allow other instruments plenty of creative freedom when it comes time to solo. No doubt this sense of openness and her willingness to collaborate is part of what has kept the membership of her group stable for over 14 years.
In addition to a bustling composing and performing schedule, Baum also leads a variety of intriguing musical workshops centered upon improvisation and fostering creativity, including ones entitled “A fear-free approach to improvisation for the classically trained musician” and “Jazz flute technique is not an oxymoron,” intended to teach classical flute and double reed players techniques appropriate for jazz performance.

Through the practice of her own “complete musicianship” Baum has become an integral player in the jazz tradition, without becoming confined by it; she keeps her ears and mind open to whatever external influences might play a role in expanding her writing, performing, and composing.