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).