Don’t Toy with the Noonday Demon

Much as I respect his work as a composer, I was upset by Keeril Makan’s post on the NY Times’ Score blog yesterday.

I’m not sure I buy Keeril’s suggestion that all composers battling with depression fear how it will impact their work if they are treated. In my discussion with creatives, I’ve come to learn that when you are in the grips of a major depressive episode, you may not be able to work at all. Indeed, those I know who are really dealing with depression don’t toy with it: they fear it as an unwelcome and unbidden visitor.

The notion that depression (or addiction) is a little seasoning to our creative juices is a pernicious one that has caused a lot of self-inflicted wounds by artists. Going after “dark moments” to spur your creativity, which is what is described in the article, is very different from experiencing brain chemistry gone haywire and completely out of your control. Having worked with blocked composers who deal with severe emotional issues, I can only hope that Mr. Makan doesn’t try and share this tidbit of “method acting” with his students.

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. Keeril is free to explore his dark materials, but I’d urge other composers not to feel compelled to “emote all their notes.”

(Note: an abridged version of the commentary above appeared on the NYT blog here). 


2 thoughts on “Don’t Toy with the Noonday Demon

  1. I was asked for a bit of clarification by a reader. Don’t lots of people fear that treatment for depression will change their personality? I don’t dispute that, but I do take issue with how it is being framed in the NYT article.

    Keeril talks about using “dark materials”as if one can play with the dosage of depression. A little melancholy here, a dash of horror movie shudders there: Presto! Art! Seriously depressed people, several of whom I’ve worked with, in many cases can’t even lift a pencil or make eye contact. I don’t doubt that Keeril is being treated for an emotional illness, but I do doubt his understanding of what depression is for many people.

    A chemical imbalance isn’t a performance enhancing measure; that is a lie that too many people tell creatives and each other. And it is that societal misapprehension that causes people to fear treating their illness. With respect, I think Keeril’s article just reinforces that stereotype and trivializes the pain experienced by an already marginalized segment of the population. Not the Score’s finest hour.

  2. I’ll cop to having been treated for depression and mild OCD in the mid-’90s. I did not want to take the treatment for all the reasons mentioned above. As it turns out, that treatment probably saved my life and allowed me to go on a do a ton of writing.

    Plus, the attitude that one must be a tortured soul in order to write beautiful music is a hideous stereotype. If it was really that amazingly hard to write music, I’d have given it up loooooong ago.


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