Let’s Talk

by T. Patrick Carrabre  ¦   September 6, 2018

Listening to music can be a transcendental experience, allowing us to “live” a wide range of emotions. But what about the emotional experiences that occur in and around the compositional process?

A few years back I was asked to write an article on the motivation of composers for the Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research. After combing through countless interviews and historical documents, I came to the conclusion that the process of creation brings most composers face-to-face with the unattainable nature of perfection. We strive to craft a real world representation of our imagined music. Something that is just beyond reality. During the process of realizing this vision, we experience short bursts of satisfaction mixed with lots of frustration, self-doubt and sometimes (not infrequently) even self-loathing. It is the most difficult work I ever do. It is so easy to get bogged down in the minutia of crafting musical structure (grinding out notes so that the voice leading works), the vagaries of notation, performance limitations (instrument “X” can’t play that note—which you hear as important to this phrase), different options for articulation and tempo (what if the piece is played faster or slower than you hear it in your mind), etc., etc. Then, when you have done your best to “get it right,” you pass the music along to performers—who may respond with their own issues of expectation, ability, preference and context. After that, the final product is put before an audience, who make more or less informed judgements about whether they “like” what they are hearing—or not! It should be no surprise then, that few composers have escaped savage criticism at some point during their careers.

Back in July I was an “outside reader” on a graduate composition thesis project. One of the pieces referenced was Stille und Umkehr (1970) by Bernd Alois Zimmerman. I hadn’t know the piece before and it’s slow, somewhat obsessive unfolding of musical ideas over a klangfarbenmelodie (sound-colour melody) drone gave me lots to think about as I was grappling with my own attempt to slow my musical ideas down:

Zimmerman suffered from severe depression. His best-known work is the opera Die Soldaten (1957-1965). His original idea for the piece included placing the audience in swivelling chairs and having the action take place around them. The “powers that be” at the Cologne Opera said that this idea would make the opera impossible to produce, so Zimmerman toiled over the score for the next eight years. Despite growing success, he committed suicide not long after finishing Still und Umkehr.

The historical record is filled with evidence of composers who have suffered from severe depression or a wide range of other spectrum disorders. It’s an issue that is not infrequently at the top of my consciousness, as I try to maintain my own “best” place on the various spectra where my personal foibles place me, or when one of my friends or colleagues is having a really bad time.

The move to a more open and honest discussion of mental health is a welcome development in our modern society. Just in the past few months, the suicides of Anthony Bourdian and Kate Spade made international headlines. Neither were composers, but both were examples of creative people who appeared to enjoy great success. Yet, despite the growing encouragement for those experiencing problems to reach out, last year saw the suicide of a number of well-known musicians, including Avicci (Tim Bergling), Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park). All were musicians whom I listened to and connected with at some point in my own listening/composing journey.

The Cranberries found their way into my listening in the early 90s. I found O’Riordan’s voice irresistible, especially that little yodel she would throw in and the influence of Irish folk music that was always at the edge of their songs.

She had publically admitted to being molested as a child and more recently to being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Apparently counterfeit fentanyl was found near her body.

While Linkin Park is pretty far from my musical homeland, I listened to them quite often in the early years of the new millenium—especially when I was out for a run. I was going through a period when I was trying to embrace a broader range of musical gestures in my own music and I could feel Bennington’s need to move from more or less normal singing to that wild screamo style.

Flash forward five or six years and I was listening at the opposite end of the spectrum. I first heard Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music when I was hosting the Signal on CBC Radio 2. His IBM 1401, A User’s Manual was slow and full of angst (at least to my mind).

He would often perform live with strings and his ultra-slow approach to harmonic motion was something I really wanted to explore myself (although I still find it very, very difficult to allow the music just to sit in the air like that!).

It wasn’t a big surprise to me that Jóhannsson drifted over to writing film soundtracks. His almost ambient approach to composition was perfect for dramatic buildups or long, sweeping sequences (think about some of the static scenes in Arrival). I also found his use of traditional instruments intriguing, like the choice of organ and brass ensemble for his score to Bill Morrison’s documentary on the history of coal mining in northern England.

Avicci’s folktronic Wake Me Up, was also one of those strange hybrids that I was drawn to a few years back. I have to forgive the track its worldwide success (which usually makes us end up hating even good songs—just through over exposure), because his deft hand at blending the warped sound spectrum available in the world of EDM with a more or less straight-up country kick drum was a real revelation for me. Some of these techniques are very similar to those used by composers such as Bartók, earlier in the 20th century.

Sadly, the commercial success that these musicians experienced didn’t help them when things got dark. Let’s hope that the move to encourage open and honest discussion about mental health issues will benefit us all. I do see real evidence that our society is encouraging those experiencing problems to reach out and ask for help. But we need to go further. I hope that we can encourage healthier practices in all areas of human endeavour—something that I think is worth reminding ourselves about as we launch into a busy new concert season (with lots of deadlines and other stressors looming on the horizon).

We want our creative people to burn brightly, so that they can produce their best work. But it shouldn’t be to the detriment of their mental or physical health. We want them to be able to continue producing beautiful and sometimes challenging work and, hopefully, to experience some of the joy and ecstasy they offer us.

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