Musical Creativity and Mental Health
This Week: Musical Creativity and Mental Health

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

12 thoughts on “This Week: Musical Creativity and Mental Health

  1. John Borstlap

    I find that a lot of contemporary music exudes a depressive or depressed mood, or a chaotic mood, or a collection of mood swings that would even shock an experienced psychiatrist. Is this because there are more depressed / emotionally-confused composers around today? Or is the ‘general language’ of today so deeply detemined by the hub of contemporary life that some of its inner chaos will automatically drip into the music? Or has it become fashion to write such music so that compoers demonstrate their being up-to-date? And why does the rare so-called ‘optimistic music’ of today – often the minimal type – sound so vulgar and superficial: not authentic and true?

    If music is pure structure and sound, there is no dimension where we can connect with our inner being. But if music is a ‘language of interiority’ (interpreted in whatever way), we can connect with music on a deep emotional level. Depression has always a concrete cause and often life itself presents itself as an excellent one. Writing music in today’s culture, sprintered into many subcultures with their audiences, easily sparks-off feelings of alienation and loneliness, which both are the roads towards depression. Finding your own context, performers and audience, will compensate for the loneliness which is a fundamental part of writing music…. you have to do that all on your own in the isolation of your room / studio. It is not a sociable profession, so compensation is of crucial importance.

    Listening to ‘old’ music which has a strongly organisational structure while being very communicative, like a Beethoven symphony, or a Bach concerto, provides ample opportunity to dissolve depressive moods, after which composing is much more pleasant and inviting. Although life was much more perillous and scary in those days, somehow composers had an emotionally-strong language which must have kept them upright. Something to be learned there.

  2. Robert Chastain

    Hi John,

    Your thoughts are well received. I do fear that the depressive, or even chaotic, mood of certain contemporary styles which you perceive might have less to do with the honest feelings of the composer, and more to do with what “sells.” One parallel would be hip-hop, a genre which in large percentage remains violent in its lyrics, but which is necessary to get signed to a label and sell records. The consumer likes to consume violence, depression, and perhaps other unhealthy expressions of lifestyle.

    I do believe consumerism is something that affects even the most “independent”-minded artist. There is an expectation for an artist based on arch-types and stereotypes. And we give into these expectations, not necessarily because we desire to be “consumed,” but because we have to in order to eat. We so often, especially for us freelancers outside of academia, have no idea what we will be able to eat the next summer, or even if we will eat. Having to be competitive is very beneficial for humankind of all sorts, but you still gotta eat. If you’re that far down Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, then you simply cannot be an “honest” artist.

    This challenge to survival, and not the potentially “chaotic” nature of any one piece of my own, makes me depressed. I am not free. But yeah, I deal with depression. And I’m happy that this discussion is out of the bag.

    And I also like experimenting with beginning sentences with conjunctions.

  3. Sabrina Pena Young

    Intriguing discussions. I would have to differ strongly though on the thoughts that Beethoven (a clear manic depressive) and other “older” composers (Mozart, Schumann, Berlioz…the list goes on) clearly exhibited creativity and mental health issues, and this was clearly demonstrated in their music. Even moving into ancient texts (Psalms, for example, which is in actuality is a mega set of song lyrics) had depressive sections that would inspire any angst-ridden songwriter today. My personal belief and experience in my own compositions like my opera Libertaria, is that music allows composers to express what cannot be said in words, and music in general allows the performers and the audience to experience those emotions in a physical and emotional way that sways the heart and challenges the mind. There also must be a distinction between “mainstream” music that is forcibly pumped into our society by mega media corporations and the independent musicians who express more than your McDonald’s variety of musical eye candy. A look at the vast swath of independent music out there in nearly every genre will reveal that music reveals the soul, no matter whatever the musical style.

  4. Philipp Blume

    I am a bit concerned, based on the handful of comments that have come in so far, that the take-away is going to be nothing more than a perpetuation of stereotypes and, frankly, myths about the tortured genius.

    1. Ellen McSweeney Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Philipp, and I can certainly see your concern! In the Thursday interview, the question of the tortured genius myth is explicitly dealt with because my interviewees wanted to discuss it. But the intention of the series is to allow people to share their experiences in the first person, with the hope that this can be of help to others in feeling less alone.

      Of course, the tortured genius trope is one of the reasons I found this topic worth tackling. It was also one of the main concerns/objections people had to Keeril Makan’s NYTimes article. It’s an important thread for further exploration. You may already be familiar with the work of Kay Jamison at Johns Hopkins? For her, the tortured genius idea is no myth, but the main subject of her work. She has a book called “Touch with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.”

  5. Warren Enström

    I think it extends beyond the idea of the tortured genius, but gets deeper into the issues of this article series — while I think more candid openness is wonderful in regards to mental health, which receives very little respect in the western world, I worry that it invites people to play armchair psychologist as we see above, hashing out the discredited tropes of “well, you’re just choosing to be sad/surround yourself with sad things! you have to choose to be happy and depression will go away!” This is an attitude I believe should be confronted at every turn until people come to respect depression (as well as other mental disorders) as an actual illness, that often strikes without a specific cause, and which cannot easily be treated by “cheering up.”

    I think this series has massive potential, but without proper resources or proper journalism, it could potentially descend into smarmy “after-school special” territory, or even worse, serving as a breeding ground for the likes of the above posters to cast judgement and to idly speculate about the dangers of “depressive music.” Thus far, I’ve enjoyed the articles posted — my biggest issue is one of rigor, but NMB can hardly be asked to educate people on the nuances of mental illness. But perhaps a general post is in order to concretize our definitions: that mental illnesses are precisely illnesses and not “moods” or “aires” or “humors,” and that while everyone feels anxious, discouraged by their work, or nervous at times, these are not the same things as general anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, or other serious mental health issues. Perhaps further still, an acknowledgement of the fact that while we all have our personal experiences of these illnesses affect ourselves (and if not ourselves, then those closest to us), none of us are mental health professionals and must, in the end, concede our massive ignorance of the topic when we are asked to speak in broad terms about them.

    I apologize if I am coming off a bit strong, but the stigma surrounding mental illness falls close to me and the people I love, as does music, so when these two issues become bedmates, I definitely want to make sure it’s handled correctly.

    1. Ellen McSweeney Post author

      Definitely see your point, Warren! Very important to point out that we aren’t mental health experts, and indeed in this capacity NMB may not be able to provide the kind of rigor in the discussion you may seek. I think of it as simply a conversation among friends, in which complexities and ambiguities are allowed to exist. Hopefully by allowing folks’ personal experiences to be heard, without attempt to fix, diagnose, “cheer up,” or analyze, we are contributing something positive. And we can’t very well control the comments. ;)

      1. Warren Enström

        Hahah I absolutely understand the inability to control comments, and I don’t want that to be the end goal — rather, I’m aiming for a more informed public. As I already said, I’ve actually been really pleased with the two articles posted this far — their candidness is greatly appreciated, and I think hearing the things that people generally hide away is a wonderful way to combat such stigmas. I just thought it poignant to bring up some of the specifics of the issues Philipp was brave enough to broach.

  6. Bongo John

    Creativity, IMO, should never be censored in any form or fashion. Sanity is a relative term, relative to where one lives and is based on what is accepted as societal norms. Something considered within the bounds of normalcy in Europe could easily be considered abnormal in the states. The main thing to consider is that what separates crazy people from non-crazy people is that non-crazy people don’t act on their crazy thoughts. Take a look at the following short film; a film I did to represent my catharsis from the rigors and corruption of this modern world – many elements of what might be considered abnormal to some – the canvas of an artist should never be censored. Freedom of expression must never, ever be censored.

  7. Debbie Costello Smith

    I wish we could have connected before this series. My son, an internationally renown blues musician, died after a delayed diagnosis and care that put him at risk (verified by an expert in the field). Sean was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II, which is characterized with depression and shifts to hypomania. Since I am a medical professional, and Sean and I had sought help for 15 years, I believed he could not be the only one. As a result, I founded The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research. Our mission centers on the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity.

    We’ve funded research on the topic and hope to do more. If you go to our website, you can find articles on the subject. In fact, there is a higher incidence within the creative population, some research says as high as 6x the rate. BD is the most genetically related psychiatric illness, along with being the one with the highest mortality. It has an effective suicide rate 50% higher than other psych related suicides. We do have a specific focus on musicians because the lifestyle further complicates the disease. Sleep, for example is an essential component of health. Irregular sleep patterns can lead to mania, the most dangerous of moods. Sean died after telling a friend he hadn’t slept in days. He took heroine to sleep and died the night before his 29th birthday. Four other people died within 2 weeks from heroine. I haven’t even mentioned the co-occurring addictions that are part of the musician’s life. 50% of people with BD have an alcohol addiction. With easy access to alcohol and drugs and the anxiety that is part of the disorder, the challenges can be overwhelming.

    Sean was in a program that had no clue. I also hypothesized that treatment for a creative person needs to be tailored to a personality that may not connect with other professions. (None of Sean’s close friends were accountants :) In Sean’s hysterically witty and sarcastic way, he asked “which one should I do, crochet or judo?” when presented with a list of things to distract cravings for substances. Instead, he worked with young blues musicians a few nights before he died.

    The Fund started 7 years ago, and I’ve been hoping for a voice to bring our message to a larger audience. Sean is known in his genre (blues) and was inducted last year into the GA Music Hall of Fame; however, blues has a limited following. (I will say though that his obituary was in the London Guardian, evidence of his international reputation.) He was an amazingly humble and gracious person who, as one person said “never met a stranger.”

    If you know of someone who could highlight our cause (we are the only nonprofit with this mission), it may advance research needed for evidence based care and special attention to creative people, especially that special group: musicians. Your world is so much more difficult than anyone knows. I followed Sean through France. I have no clue how he performed after 10 hours in a van, to leave the next day for the same routine. Traveling in the States was worse.

    I applaud you for this series and hope that all of us can make a difference that offering someone with mental illness a future with effective care and without stigma. Mental illness is a disease of the brain, not unlike that of any other organ of the body.

    Debbie Costello Smith (Sean’s Mom)

    1. George Kahumoku Jr

      Aloha from Kahakuloa Maui 9-21-15
      I send blessings and good vibrations to all. I’m a 4 time Grammy Winner for best Hawaiian music, I’m currently retired from teaching at Risk high school kids for over 35 years and teaching at Maui college for 6 years & Heading the Institute of Hawaiian Music for 2 years . This past Saturday nite, I attended an event called “Arise” at our Maui Arts & Cultural Center here on Maui put on by Mental Health Kokua. The Key note speaker was Jessie Close (sister of actress Glenn close.) Her talk was very transparent & revealing! I have a son Keoki that has been diagnosed with Bi polar disorder . He has tried to kill himself several times. My wife just wishes he would just snap out of it and come to his senses! But from Jessie’s talk , I just learned that Mental a Health is a disease of the brain and he can’t snap out of it any more than a person with cancer can snap out of cancer!
      I feel that I might have passed on this mania Depressive gene to my son Keoki. I get only 3-4 hours of sleep a night and take 20 minutes -1 hour naps in the afternoons. Like Carolyn O’Brien, I’m afraid of losing it and forgetting what I know! I write in my journals everyday and am finishing up my new Book A Hawaiian Life Book #2. I ‘m also a sculptor and visual artist who also went to art school so I’m also illustrating my book! What helps my get through the day and week and months is eating fresh fruits and vegetables that I grow naturally from my garden. Weeding is also meditative & being an Indeginous Native Planter I plant by , weed, harvest and castrate my farm animals and even fish by the various phases of the moon . I feel that the cycles of the moon, and cycles of planting, mulching, weeding, harvesting and eating set the boundaries of time for me to fill in the gaps with other interests such as playing music . We also ranch goats, sheep, mini horses, ducks and chickens , a few pigs and cows and raise over 400 varieties of fruits ,vegetables ,herbs and Hawaiian native teas. I want to thank Ellen McSweeney for bringing Mental Health to the forefront! If any of you are ever on Maui check me out! We can always use help in the garden!

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