Creation and Depression


American composer Keeril Makan, whom the New Yorker called “an arrestingly gifted young American composer”

KEERIL MAKAN'S BLOG post at the New York Times, My Material: The Music of Depression,"  has already elicited comments, including a response from composer and critic Christian Carey, one that I agree with. In terms of how I feel about the issue of depression and creation, or composed music as a reflection and narrative of emotional states, Carey is speaking for me as well when he writes: “I also steadfastly reject the notion that composers are inevitably reflecting their emotional life in their music. Some of Mozart’s most joyful works are written from the depths of mourning. It is a romantic notion, but it just doesn’t hold up for everyone.”

Composition is an insanely abstract, internalized art. The mind puts together structures without substance, the hand writes symbolic instructions and then the infrastructure of friendship, persuasion and money exerts, hopefully, enough influence so that a group of musicians will actually translate these instructions into sounds that, again hopefully, will define and shape the passage of time the way the mind imagined. It is so abstract -- non-existent, really -- that I contend it needs competent critics who can hear how it tries to define and shape time and also are open to their intuitive responses to music, because how one feels while listening to a piece is usually totally different than how the composer feels while writing it, and the competent critic will hear things in the music the composer put in there that the composer him or herself did not notice. We may try to know ourselves, but some part will always be overlooked, as either too close or too far away, but caring ears will know it’s there.

I appreciate what Makan has to say about how composing is a physical activity for him, and it makes sense to me in terms of his music. I know best his 2011 CD Target and I recommend it strongly to anyone interested in contemporary music. But I do not hear in the music what Makan says is in there, I don’t deny it, I just hear different things. What I hear is a gripping sense of energy and antagonism, music that comes out of the legacy of minimalism but goes beyond it into surprising sonic territory. I also hear Makan’s excellent sense of form and proportion, as all the pieces not only seem to have just the right duration, but move from section to section and idea to idea at just the moments of maximum interest and tension. There’s a nervous energy that is exciting and slightly aggressive.

Makan says this is his depression speaking and I believe him, but I don’t hear that because I’m sure that my idea of depression is not his. While the nature of composition makes me suspect that depression is an inherent part of composers’ lives (which can’t be true), depression is to me utterly debilitating creatively. It is solipsistically destructive, seductive in the worst way, the way that feels like thinking about a thing, turning it over in one’s mind, perfecting the idea of it until it is the most beautiful thing in the world. But it can never be perfect, and it can always be more beautiful, so the thing never gets done, the step of taking the idea out of one’s mind and putting it down on paper never happens. One can think oneself the most daring, creative genius on earth, but that is a truth which, if never tested out in the world, one will take to one’s grave, have kept it a tiny, hard, bitter secret.

Makan credits therapy, including medication and meditation, for helping him, and the latter strikes me as inherent to the composition process. There are no notes in the head, just sounds and shapes and colors, and while he may find he needs to bring them up, I find that I need a certain stillness in and around me so that I can hear them properly, because there’s quite a lot of noise that usually drowns them out. I need to hear them, though, and once they reach that threshold they need to be out in the world. I’m really not sure what they mean, and I’m not sure their meaning matters. It’s how I think and what feels most natural for expressing myself. That is why I’m a composer, not because I have any special talent or inclination for music.

The piece in the Times beings with a quote from Coleridge, from “Dejection: An Ode.” I would like to close with a response from a different poet, Yeats, that speaks to my way of thinking and feeling in a way that Coleridge doesn’t. His poem “To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing,” the poet advises what to do with failure, fairly thought of as depression. The failed man is the better man, because he can perceive failure in himself and in others, and, if he can be honest, will find strength in that knowledge and that honesty. That will be a success, but one that no one else will, nor can, ever know. “Be secret and exult,” Yeats encourages, “Because of all things known/That is most difficult.”

George Grella's column The Drift appears on Classical TV.