The Best and Worst Thing: A conversation with Keeril Makan and Daniel Felsenfeld
Two composers sit down and talk about depression, PTSD, and how social media can increase isolation.
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.
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.
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.