Tag: depression

Clouds and Clouds: Composing through the Fog of Depression

A photo of a large body of water meeting a cloudy sky at the horizon.

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.

I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music.

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.”

There are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career.

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.

Color Wheel

The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal.

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, but…

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.

Circular Thinking

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.

Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance.

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?

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.

Muted Greys

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.

The spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience.

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:

The opening 4 measures from the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

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.

Four measures from a passage in the middle of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

The final seven measures of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

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.

What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music.

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.

Low end

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

Depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory.

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.

A page from Chris Trapani's sketchbook

A page from Christopher Trapani’s sketchbook.

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.

To argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression would be far too simplistic.

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.

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.

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.