When your life revolves around music, as mine does, it becomes quite easy to live what may be termed an “insulated” life – a life that is, in many ways, unconnected with the realities that the rest of the world deals with on a regular basis for the simple reason that while music may be important to me (and to everyone else who creates music), and the rarefied individuals who are able to partake of the joys of contemporary “art music”, the realities of life (though some might argue, correctly, I might add, that this is not how life should be) – but war, and the political machinations behind the scenes that ultimately, inexorably, lead to wars and genocides, as well as the various crimes and misdemeanours which the Talking Heads on the News seem so pleased to be bringing into our homes every night, promptly at 6pm (except when they want to interrupt Judge Judy at 4pm) – all of these seem to conspire together to make me feel that what I am doing with my life seems quite insignificant. At least, that may be how I start to feel when my mood takes one of the many downward spirals that are closely associated with an illness that I have been living with for many years – it began to manifest itself while I was in high school, thirty years ago. The illness is not uncommon among composers, it seems: some of the greatest musical geniuses have been afflicted with this disease, including Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, George Frederick Handel, and perhaps even Ludwig van Beethoven (cf. Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison) – so I count myself among great company when I say “I have Bipolar Disorder“. I have Bipolar Affective Disorder, Type II, and I’m not ashamed – at all – because of it, so don’t bother making notes or copying and pasting this, to use against me at some point in the future: I’ve gone on record on a number of occasions – this is not a “coming out” for me, but thank you for caring.
I also have to remember, and this is important, that when my mood turns away from the sunny pursuits of life my feelings are liars: my feelings want me to succomb to their taunts and prevarications, that I may abandon hope, cast aside all that I’ve accomplished, and surrender to the Sirenic calls coming from the depths of Hades. The lies will, eventually, cause you to take everything that is important and kill it, but you cannot allow those voices to be heard for very long lest they force your mood into a deeper darkness than it had been in before the day began. Depression is pernicious, evil and, above all else, it does not discriminate: anyone is susceptible to it, regardless of their social standing or moral character. It does not matter whether you are a “good person” or an asshole, 1 in 5 people will become depressed at some point in their lives. You have a much greater chance of becoming depressed – at some point in life – than of ever winning the Lottery.
I have tickets for the Lottery this weekend.
In all seriousness, I could be angry at the fact that I have a mental illness (that is, after all, what Bipolar disorder is), but that’s not how I feel about it and I’m going to tell you why (this would be a pretty lame article if I didn’t, right? – never mind): I know, for a fact, that my creative life has been tremendously enhanced as a result of this illness. It has made aspects of my life more difficult and yes, it has caused some intense suffering, but the abilities that I’ve gained – the ability to see things with an increased clarity, to feel things at a greater depth (yes, I’m a man that cries – a lot, at times – sometimes over the silliest things, but it is only because I feel something that touches me tremendously), and to experience things in a way that just does not make sense to others. Just as I try not to eat junk food, I try not to listen to “noise” – in whatever form it may inhabit (I’m not making a specific statement regarding any particular genre of music as I’ve listened to, and enjoyed, everything from Ska to avant garde jazz [which can be WAY out there]; I’m referring to … crap. There, I said it: musical crap. It exists, you’ve heard it, that’s all I’m saying.). When listening to music it goes beyond simply “hearing” the music, it is something that enters through the entire body: there’s a piece of music by Beethoven, for example, that I just adore, the first movement of his 6th Symphony (among many other pieces), also known as the Pastorale. It is an achingly beautiful composition, but lately I find that I rarely listen to recordings of the piece when I leave the house: instead of using my Mp3 player and having the sounds of traffic interspersed with my recording I close my eyes (once I’m on the bus … walking with my eyes closed has tended to cause me more pain than I’m already experiencing as a result of the fibromyalgia … more in a future article) which allows me to drown out everything around me, and let the “orchestra of my mind” take up the symphony. It is a performance replete with every nuance and gesture that the composition deserves, without sounding overly sentimental … and I don’t have to pause the performance if I don’t want to, while changing buses, or waiting for the train – I just listen, in my mind, and experience my own private concert. I can, and do, do this with several of my favourite pieces, and have been “practicing” pieces that I’m playing on the guitar by “playing” them in my mind while waiting at the bus stop, playing the left hand fingering on the strap of my satchel, every note ringing in my mind as clearly as though I were playing on the best guitar in the world.
When you are listening to music in your mind (or, perhaps I should say, hearing music in your head) you are living the music at a deeper level than if you are only using your ears. Another term for this type of “deep listening” is audiation. Audiation is, in its essence, “ear imagination” – being able to imagine sound(s) in your ear. It is a particularly important talent for composers who can, literally, compose in their heads if (and this is one of those big “ifs”) they can hear what they want to put down on the paper without having to refer to an instrument. In this sense, I’ve been very lucky in that this is how I’ve been composing virtually from day one. I never compose at a piano or on the guitar, though I may play something after I’ve written it down, I write things down as I hear it, or after hearing it in my head. That’s just the way I’ve always worked, and it has always worked well for me, so I’m not about to change things up now. Regardless of how I may be feeling I understand now that the most important thing for me is the process: writing, composing, putting things down on paper – or on the screen – filling those empty spaces – is a process, and if you are not dedicated to the process, even when things seem to be going badly, you will fail. Failure is not an option. Failure – failing – is part of life, and we learn our greatest lessons from our failures, our mistakes, our massive f*@$ Ups – they make us who we are as adults. Anyone that says they haven’t failed is a liar, and someone dealing with intense insecurity issues. They shouldn’t be trusted.
I have failed. Actually, one of my biggest failures, in university, ended up being one of the best things to happen to my musical education, and turned out to be a tremendous experience that I wouldn’t have had if I had succeeded: I had been carrying a double major – composition AND performance (psychotic? no, just bipolar), and I was failed on my 4th year recital, which I did in my 3rd year (which was actually my 2nd year at the school … confusing, perhaps … but don’t worry, it isn’t important). Anyway, I needed a C+ to pass the recital and received a C. I received an “A” from one jury member, a “B” from another, and an “F” from the third member … he really hated the piece that I’d composed, and he told me so – and he gave me a mark to fail me, even though two-thirds of the jury had given me marks that were more than passing marks. BUT … failing that 6 credit course was a blessing! To make up those credits (they wouldn’t count towards my degree – and – since they wouldn’t count, the C wouldn’t figure into my GPA! It was as though I hadn’t even taken the course!) I was able to take a Special Research Project with my composition teacher and a Graduate Studies course in Schenkerian Analysis – and I received top marks in both courses, graduating Magna Cum Laude. So, failing was an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow – and an opportunity to grow some humility. Nobody is perfect.
Our greatest perfection lies in the recognition of our imperfections. It is only when we are able to look into ourselves and see the ugliness looking back that we are equipped to deal with it, to look back and, instead of cringing, look the ugliness in the eye and declare, “I know you; I recognize you … I’m going to change you.” On the occasions that I do take the time to listen to the Talking Heads who seem so intent on invading my space every evening at 6pm I am astounded at the level of frivolity that accompanies what they deign worthy of being called “News” – certain “human interest” stories (Man Bites Dog: Dog Gets Rabies … etc.) that seem to be just two steps beyond the inane level. At the same time, it makes me wonder, how much more some of these people need the beauty of music in their lives. Perhaps it isn’t such a frivolous existence after all, not when you consider how much music can bring people together, if only for the few moments the piece is being played, there is total equality for (my) music does not judge. There is no race in music, there is no religion, no strife, no violent struggle against right or wrong (and if there is, there are no casualties!), and there hatred, only the joyful noise that celebrates the love of life in all of its glory.
So, with all the glory of life and music, why is it I want to die every now and then?
Bipolar Disorder, otherwise known as “Manic Depressive Disorder” is, in many ways, the best and the worst of what you could ask for (not that anyone would ask for a mental illness). Type II of this illness indicates that the individual does not experience a full-blown manic episode, which may often end up resulting in a stay in the hospital. Mania is a serious thing, not something to be joked about, and definitely NOT something that you want to experience. I’ve seen people during a manic episode and it is not pretty. I am lucky (yes, I said it) in that I only (only) experience hypomanic episodes. “Hypomania” is, quite literally, a “small” mania. I like to compare the two like this: Mania is like someone running down the street, naked, singing Black Sabbath songs … while twirling a parasol. Hypomania is watching the person experiencing the manic episode and saying to yourself, “that looks like a lot of fun, but … I think I’d choose the Beatles instead … and no parisal” – but – the person with hypomania does NOT go through with it, that’s the difference. Hypomania, when I experience it (not very often – perhaps a few times per month, if I’m unlucky) makes me feel as though everything is running in triple-fast-forward; all of my senses are in overdrive, and it feels as though my entire body is “thrumming” with energy, that I could, quite literally, lift off the ground just by thinking about it – or by taking a small step into the air. Unfortunately, these episodes do not usually result in a great amount of creative lucre – I am usually too easily distracted by … anything … to harness the energies of the episode and create something. On the rare occasion that I experience a “switch” into hypomania while I’m already at work on a piece … oh my … that can be an incredible session and produce amazing results, or crap. Yes, sometimes this has happened and the next time I looked at my work I ended up deleted several hour’s of work because … it was CRAP! But, that happens. Part of the maturing process as an artist, and particularly as a composer, is being able to look at what you’re writing and recognize when something is worth keeping and something is not (I’m not talking about false modesty here, “oh, nothing I write is worth saving” – that’s a load of crap – if you believe that, become a garbage person, not an artist).
Most of my creative energies come from a place that is between hypomania and the depressions that I experience, though they (thankfully) don’t last very long (usually), thanks to the medications I take. When I’m working it is as though my mood reaches some form of artificial “stasis”, blocking out everything including the pain from the constant migraine that I’ve been living with since high school. As long as the music is flowing (that which I’m hearing in my head) it is possible to maintain this “cone of creativity”, but – once I stop my composing session for the day … the tsunami washes over me with overwhelming force.
So, the struggle continues, and when I make the mistake of listening to the Talking Heads I allow myself to question what value there is to putting a bunch of black notes on paper, making marks and lines that may never be played or heard by others – in my lifetime. I have to remind myself that composing is not really about the “here and now” (or the “hear and now”), but rather about an investment into the cultural future of our species. Yes, that sounds incredibly grandiose, but think about it for a moment, how many manuscripts of Bach may have been lost because of the manner in which he composed and how the finished scores were transmitted, stored, and etc.? Beethoven? Mozart? Several, for each, and that is a tragedy. Contemporary composers face similar issues, even (and especially) when writing music that creates scores on the computer, but when we produce music, even if it is not performed in our lifetime, it exists, and will be around for future generations of performers looking for “something new” from a particular generation. Composers are adding drops into a giant time capsule for future generations to open and enjoy. That’s why I’ve always said “you do not become a composer of contemporary classical music to become rich”.
I have to remind myself that Depression is a liar, and it’s very good at it as well. Depression will tell you that you’re a failure, that you haven’t achieved anything, and that you’re never going to achieve anything. Do Not Listen to it’s voice. Depression is something that can be, should be, and must be battled – at all costs. Do not fall into the lie that “I can beat this” on your own, that’s one of the lies Depression uses to entrap its victims into its cycle of defeat, desolation, and disintegration (of self). Depression cannot bear the light of day, the sound of laughter, the smile of another, or the touch of a loved one. Depression must be treated as the dangerous serial killer that it is: if you or a friend/relative are experiencing a serious depressive episode PLEASE seek help from a qualified medical professional. If you have been considering harming yourself IN ANY WAY, PLEASE call the Emergency Services (911 in Canada & U.S.) and call for help immediately (a Canadian resource). There is nothing to be ashamed of, this is an illness that must be taken seriously before it takes another victim. There’s no point feeding the dragon when we have weapons that have been forged in flames to defeat it.
While Bipolar disorder is an illness that leads some people to take their lives, it does have a silver lining in that it has been shown to enhance the creativity of the afflicted. One might say, in closing, it is a bitter pill to swallow, but I wouldn’t change it if I could: I’ve never known another way as far as my creativity goes; how could I be sure I could compose without this Mercurial, Psychotic Muse paying me her regular visits? It is a chance, thank you very much, that I would not take. For now, and forever, I shall remain the CrazyComposer – thank you, thank you very much … and the beat … and the beat goes on … and on … and on.