Posts Tagged ‘classical guitar’

Black Dogs and Guitars

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Someone once told me I was lucky to have Bipolar Disorder rather than Clinical Depression; they felt that having Bipolar Disorder was easier to cope with because, in their misguided opinion, at least the Depressive episodes experienced with Bipolar would have some light at the end of the tunnel. While that may be true, on the surface, while you are experiencing a depression associated with Bipolar Disorder, or anything else for that matter, it makes little difference if you are fairly certain it is going to end in a day or an hour: for the entire duration of the episode it feels as though you are being dragged through the darkest pit of Hell. The journey cannot end soon enough. The longer the episode lasts the harder it becomes to endure, the landscape of your thoughts take on a bleak, dark tone; all you want to do is hide from the prospect of human contact hide until the pain dissipates, until the light manages to poke its head through the seemingly impenetrable clouds once again.

For the past few weeks the Black Dog of Depression has had its jaws firmly latched its onto me, and I have been on that journey through the pit, albeit against my will. This is not unfamiliar to me, to be sure, but that does not make it any easier to cope with; it just means that I am painfully aware of what is happening to me, as though I were a well prepared roast, watching itself as it is about to be carved up and served to hungry guests for supper, all the while powerless to intervene, to stop the violence about to be done to itself. In many ways a Depressive episode is much like this: it allows a person to see things happening to themselves, but robs them of the ability to act upon what they are seeing, as though their mind has been set in an epoxy or some sort of resin and cannot respond as quickly (or at all) as it normally would. The thinking process is not only painfully slowed down so that it becomes difficult to formulate an intelligent response to someone when they ask you a question (which is one of the reasons I actively avoid speaking to people when I’m in this state), but your comprehension of even the simplest things seems to go flying out the window.

Things, concepts, ideas: that which you had a clear grasp of the day before the Depressive episode began now look to you as alien concepts; they make absolutely no sense. If you do manage to decipher them, having wracked your brain to the point that you’ve triggered your Migraine to the point that it is blinding you, it dawns on you that whatever it is you’re looking at is not what you wanted in the first place, leaving you back at square one, which brings me to my perverse desire to compose while in this state. I say perverse simply because it seems incongruous that creativity should have anything to do with such a bleak, painful episode, and yet, when I am struck by this pernicious illness I turn to creative endeavours as my salvation, knowing from past experiences that these episodes usually result in an increase in my creative output. One might almost describe my output in these times as verging on hypo-manic in nature, and that would be an accurate assessment of the situation were it not for the fact that my mood is in such a depressive state.


Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts regarding creativity and Bipolar disorder, my creativity is not predicated on an elevated mood, which is a good thing considering how quickly my moods change (as well as how often they change… but that’s another story, for another time). While many people with this disorder have found their greatest creative flow accompanying a period of hypo-mania, such as Robert Schumann who composed in white-heat episodes of creativity and then experienced prolonged episodes of creative silence, I tend to find that my greatest inspiration flows from a mild-depressive state. At least, that’s what I used to think, until this current episode struck. Of the many ways this Depression could be described, “mild” is not one of them. There have been times over the past two weeks when things have seemed desperately hopeless, but … it is a lie.

You have to remember (I have to remember, and I have to remind myself of this every day, every hour, whenever I am experiencing a Depressive episode) that Depression is a profoundly effective liar: Depression will try to convince you that your troubles are far greater than they are, that what you do is not worth anything, that you have no talent, that … well, you get the idea. Depression will use anything it has against you, tossing false evidence against you in an attempt to create its ultimate victory: Despair. Once it has created Despair, once a person has lost all hope of the episode from ending, the battle is virtually lost. The next step is often suicide, and I have seen too many beautiful lives destroyed to allow myself to listen to the whispers of this hoarse demon as it tries to convince me that I have no talent, or that I’m not able to do anything with my abilities as a composer.

In the midst of this Depressive episode, as difficult as it has been to cope with due to the increased pain from the fibromyalgia and Migraine, I managed to complete to compositions for the classical guitar. The first piece is a dark piece, reflective of the mood I was in, though it is not a “depressing” piece. It is called Sonata Apocalyptica, a single movement piece in sonata form, which is about 12 minutes long (perhaps a bit longer, depending on the performer who has a Cadenza to improvise). The second piece, which was completed only last night, on 30 August, is called Perpetual Kaleidoscope and has a Spanish flair to it as it explores two types of the popular guitar technique known as “tremolo” (one is a the traditional three-note tremolo while the other is a two-note tremolo, played pmi using the open “G” string as a drone). This piece is between 7 and 8 minutes in length.

Length is never something that is of particular interest to me, but in this case I find it interesting that in the depths of a severe Depressive episode I managed to compose approximately 20 minutes of music in about 6 days. If there was ever a doubt to the connection between this affective disorder and my creativity, let this put it to rest, once and for all. On several days during this episode, for example, thanks to the nature of the Depression, it was possible for me to sit in one place and compose for almost the entire day. I had almost no interest in food and ignored virtually all interactions with others. When I wasn’t composing I used the music in my mind to drown out the lies of the Depression as it tried to whisper Despair to me in the quiet of the night. Filling my mind with ideas for the piece I was writing pushed aside enough of the blackness for me to get through the time when I was not actually composing.

Now the pieces are completed and the Depression has not (yet) passed, which raises the issue of another type of depression which I have often experienced, a type that often comes at the conclusion of projects: my doctor and I call it “Post Creavit Melancholia”, which may be understood much in the same way as “Post Partum Depression”. The problem is that the Depressive episode from Bipolar Disorder does not differentiate itself from Post Creavit Melancholia (PCM), leaving the individual unaware of what they are experiencing (it would be so much easier if Depression ran an inner dialogue as it tormented you, letting you know the nature of its origins … “Tally Ho! PCM here: good work on that last piece! Sorry to say that I must now make you pay for that bit of inspired work … hope you don’t mind, not that it would matter if you did.”). Suffice it to say, it does not really matter what causes a Depressive episode, what matters is the journey through the darkness: getting through to the other side. Getting through unscathed. Each episode is a war unto itself, each day a battle to be won; ground may be lost from time to time, but it is the overall battle, the ultimate victory over the disease that is important for us to focus on: a Depressive episode will end, we will win the war.

When diagnosing a Depressive episode one of the important elements to consider is the duration of the episode. While a “Clinical Depression” may be defined by a length of at least 2 weeks, the reality of living with Bipolar disorder means you can conceivably experience a Depressive episode that lasts from several days to only a few hours. Size is not an issue when dealing with Depression: if you are attempting to navigate the darkness it does not matter if the journey takes an hour, a day, or a week; for the duration of the journey you are at risk of losing all sense of connection to humanity, all reason to continue living, of falling into the depths of despair, of choosing to end your life rather than persevere through the end of the darkness. This is where it is vitally important to rely on the tools that you have learned along the way to use against the Depressive episode. You may have to fight to remember what you have learned, but it is worth the battle.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the things Depression robs an individual of is perception, but it also steals insight. While you may know something quite well while you are not experiencing a Depressive episode, add the Big D into the mix and suddenly a simple mathematical equation that you could do with your eyes closed feels like Rocket Science … you may as well have been asked to calculate the sixteenth figure in the Fibonacci series (which happens to be 987, in case you were wondering). The point is, when someone is living through a Depressive episode they cannot always see the forest for the trees: they may know that this is something that is going to pass, that it is a temporary situation, but during the episode, during the isolating darkness in which they’re experiencing both physical and mental pain, a mental anguish that can barely be described by any existing vocabulary, it really does feel as though it is going to go on forever … and that is the beginning of Despair. Perception is off-kilter and the lack of insight into how to cope with what is happening to you has to be dealt with on an idea to idea basis: you cannot allow a single negative idea to go by unchecked, you have to pose an intellectual counter offensive against the lies being waged against you, and that is part of what composing does for me. It serves as my personal Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by redirecting my intellectual energy away from the negative thinking towards something positive. It may not end the episodes early, but it helps to keep the darkness at bay, and that allows me to live.

The alternative is unthinkable.

Making it Work: Creatively Crazy


Confucius once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I cannot think of any career where this can truer than in the field of music: we speak of “playing” instruments, “playing music”, and, for those of us lucky to be in that position, we create music out of thin air. How much less like “work” can be the creation of something that will bring joy to the lives of others? Certainly, it takes effort, but who would trade being a composer (or musician in general) for, oh, I don’t know … how about a coal miner, or a fisherman on the Bering Sea? Thank you, very much, but no; I am quite cognizant of the fact that I lead a life tremendously blessed by virtue of the fact that I have been afforded the opportunity to follow my dream of being a composer, even though this “blessing” has come at the result of two chronic illnesses; were it not for these illnesses it would not have been possible, in all likelihood, for me to pursue this “career” without caring so much about the financial side of the game. In effect, the reason that I’ve been afforded this opportunity is, largely, the result of those two illnesses which have exerted an intense influence upon my life over the past thirty years: bipolar affective disorder, and fibromyalgia (accompanied by a chronic migraine that has not gone away since my time in high school).

One of the things that Confucius definitely had right about his comment was that if you really love what you are doing, it can never really feel like you’re doing work: the only downside to this is, and this also applies really well to music, it makes it very easy to see yourself doing a lot of “work” without receiving much, if any, remuneration for the tasks … because, after all, you’re doing it “for the love of the music” – you’re not “in it for the money”, right? Of course, this is true, and in my case, I really am not doing it for the money: as a result of the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (type II for those keeping score), as well as fibromyalgia (don’t forget that migraine – it’s there, 24/7/365/21,900/1,314,000); as a result I’ve been on permanent disability since 2000 (Ontario Disability Support Program). When it started I had gone through an intensely devastating period of over a year where I could not compose a note due to the intense depression that I was experiencing. This was an absolutely horrific thing to go through: I couldn’t compose or write, save for the occasional poem, which probably prevented me from losing all hope in life. It took many hours with several doctors, experiments with several medications, but … the music that I had been so used to hearing all the time in my head was there again, as though it had never been gone … and I have never looked back. But, sometimes it would be nice if somebody thought what I was doing was worth my being paid something.

This isn’t to say I have never been paid for my music, of for a composition: I have, and it makes me quite uncomfortable when someone asks “how much” I want for something … I really am not in this for the money … but … life doesn’t really know that. This past year my cat had cancer – and survived – but that means that I am now making monthly payments (for the next several months) to repay the lovely people that put the price of Seussie’s surgery on their credit card. I could have bought an extremely expensive concert guitar for what I’m paying … I now tell my cat, “you’re the most valuable thing I own” (he looks at me, yawns, and goes to sleep … a perfect cat). The idea of life, however, without him, was not possible. Paying the vet bill is just something I have to do … the cost doesn’t matter.

Whenever I have an appointment with my psychiatrist (a charming doctor named Dr Miura, who hails from Argentina and is of Japanese and Argentine descent) at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, the first – and most important – question that he always asks me is: “how is your music going?” He understands, quite clearly, that if my music is “going well”, if I am composing he knows that my mental health is not anywhere near a critical area. The same can be said if I’m writing other things as well: the creative process is equally transferable for me; so, I’m fine if I’m writing and not composing … for a short period of time. My mental stability is inexorably connected to my creative process: when I’m writing (music or otherwise) I’m in a “good place” – when I’m not … that’s one of the most important “warning signs” that things are going downhill … really quickly. This is an especially important thing to observe in my situation since I have been diagnosed with the type II variant of bipolar disorder, and have been further classified as a “rapid cycler”, meaning my moods have a tendency to “switch” much more quickly than someone who has the type I variant of the illness, and experiences full-blown mania. I’ve never had a full manic episode, thankfully, but that doesn’t make the type II variant any easier to manage: it has become something of a job as it requires a great amount of observation and dedication to monitor things, how they affect me, and etc., and to constantly monitor my physical and emotional state so that I do not over-exert myself (which is a no-no with fibromyalgia, resulting in several days recovery time for the slightest exertion) or allow my emotions to get (too) out of control. It all boils down to self awareness: understanding how you will react under certain situations and, knowing that, making choices as to how you will participate – or if you will participate.

It became clear to me, when I was younger, that if I wanted to pursue my dream of being a composer the thing I had to do was compose (Just do it? In a manner of speaking, yes … but I also studied, and practiced, and practiced, and studied … ad nauseum). Yes, that sounds silly, but I mean it just the way it sounds: I started writing music at every opportunity that I had as a student, on everything, in everything; in harmony and theory assignments, extending homework assignments, “doodling” in classes … it was probably maddening to some of my professors, but it helped develop my “chops” as the composer that I ultimately became. When I was a student in college and university two things were important to me: playing the guitar and composing; the further I progressed in school, studying more contemporary music with a brilliant composer named Steven Gellman as my mentor the guitar began to take second fiddle to my musical interests and composition became my primary passion, a passion that has not waned to this day. In fact, after my 3rd year guitar recital (which I performed in my 2nd year at the University of Ottawa) I almost stopped playing altogether, in part to dedicate myself wholly to the task of composing, but also partly because I had been playing with a great amount of pain for several years, and there was no reason to put myself through that anymore if I had no more recitals to prepare for or juries to appear before.

Fibromyalgia is not something that I would want anyone to have to experience, but for those that have it, and live with the pain and discomfort that it presents, you can understand how easy it is to give up on something if, in your mind, you are not actually losing anything in the act. When I stopped playing the classical guitar I really only stopped practicing six to eight hours a day, but I would still play the instrument … for a while. That extra time, for the most part, ended up being used on other projects, like composing … so, it was all good. When I did return to the guitar, however, it got to the point where I was unable to maintain the technical level that I’d had as a performer, and that was unacceptable to me: I didn’t want to be an “okay” guitar player after having played concert repertoire, so … I stopped playing it altogether … and, oddly, it didn’t bother me at the time. I was, after all, composing. Everything was working fine. For a while.

Since I was on disability it was as though – in my mind – I was being paid to compose. Being a “Creative” had become my job by virtue of the fact that I had to continue being productive, and was now “employed” by the Government of Ontario (the Ministry of Community and Social Services, to be precise). So, I was “only” a composer – that was fine by me … but, unlike many of my colleagues, I was in a position to write music for anyone – and not have to worry about the politics of grant applications and commissions in order to get things done: if someone was interested in my music and wanted to play a piece of mine, a commission was created. Period. I would compose the music and they would perform the work and record it … simple, sweet, and elegant. It is an arrangement that has worked for me, and the performers involved, for the most part, for the better part of twenty-years. The only problem is that even when Confucius is deferred to and you are not “working”, per se, the idea of receiving remuneration for something that you have created is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it is going to help you in the pursuit of your art – or, just to help you make ends meet when you discover that living on a disability pension is not necessarily as luxurious as it sounds (if I’ve said anything to make it sound luxurious, I apologize … and retract every jot and tittle … there is nothing glamorous about subsistence living … though it is better [much] than living on the streets). Or, if your cat gets cancer … things like that. Life. It sometimes gets expensive.

Seuss reclining - his favourite pose

Seuss reclining – his favourite pose

No. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that one of the definite disadvantages of composing “for the love of music” means that, on occasion, being taken advantage of is standard operating procedure. Once, for example, an orchestration that I was commissioned to create – and this was an actual paid project – was delivered, and then the payment was never made. They simply denied ever having discussed the price with me, and since we had no written contract … there was nothing I could do about it (the piece has since been premiered and you can hear the performance on my SoundCloud page here). Other projects have ended in disappointment, but – once again, there haven’t been contracts memorializing the terms and conditions, so, in one fell swoop a major chamber work and two solo works were tossed aside because … well, the concert they were going to be performed in wasn’t going to happen and there were no plans to put them in a future concert. There wasn’t anything I could do, so … I started composing other pieces and began shopping around the chamber piece, looking for other performance opportunities.

While I may not be making my living (aside from occasional residuals, which are very occasional, and not enough for anyone to live on) from my music it is equally disheartening that it seems so easy for some people to casually dismiss what amounts to hundreds of hours of creative endeavours (in other words: work; it may not feel like work, but it is, in fact, exactly that). Composing may not be true “work” but it takes time, effort, and a tremendous amount of intellectual energy. When I spend four, five, or ten hours composing it feels as though I have worked at a physical job when I finally stop. The reason for this is quite simple: the pain. While I’m composing I’m able to push aside the constant pain I live with, to the point that I don’t even notice (for the most part) the migraine that has, at times, led me to the Emergency Room for shots of heavy-duty opiates when I was in high school and college (not necessary today because of the medication I take on a regular basis, thanks to a doctor who understands pain management and the ramifications of chronic pain left untreated). When a composition session of mine ends there is a short pause and then a flood … a torrential wave of migraine, washes over me … and it happens virtually every time. Day in, day out; if I can write, I can block the pain, but when I stop … it returns; with a vengeance. Of course, if I’m not writing or composing the pain becomes even worse … something that cannot be tolerated without intense concentration.

Living with pain has become something of an art form, something that I have to do if I want to continue living and working, but when it interferes with my work, when it becomes an impediment to that which makes my life worth living, that’s when it becomes too much to handle. If it weren’t for the pain management that I have, thanks to a very caring doctor, the greatest truth is that my compositional career would have ended many years ago. Unfortunately, many composers out there have not been afforded the luxury that I have, to write without worrying about money; many composers are restricted by economic circumstances as to what they can, and will, compose. I am only confined by what I want to compose, so long as someone is interested in performing the music, I will compose for them … but … I have to ask the question … is there really something wrong with composers receiving something (something?) for that which they create? On the other hand, I often compose pieces just for the sake of composing … without having anyone asking for it … just because I’m inspired to compose the piece. Following your inner inspiration is one of the greatest ways to allow your creativity to lead you into an undiscovered world of discovery. Composers compose … it’s what we do.

I don’t want any of this to sound carnal, but … truth be told, I started playing classical guitar again a few months ago (more about that in a future post) and, well … there’s a guitar maker that I would really love to buy a guitar from … alas, his guitars are not the type of thing that fit into my budget. So … aside from paying for my cat’s surgery, it would be really wonderful to be able to purchase a concert guitar – perhaps not the “Rolls Royce” version … but … something nice.