Build the Playground: Carolyn O’brien on Composing Through Depression

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Welcome to the final installment of our Mental Health & Musical Creativity series. For an introduction, as well as links to previous articles, click here .

Today, I’m delighted to bring you my conversation with Carolyn O’Brien . I visited her, her husband Bob Hullinger, and their dog Pete at their home in Evanston, Illinois. I brought a bottle of rosé, and Carolyn made the most incredible salmon cakes. More than any other conversation on this week’s series, my discussion with Carolyn and Bob was a talk among friends.

You’ll be inspired here not only by Carolyn and Bob’s relationship, but also by the ingenious strategies Carolyn has devised for how to compose through and with depression. Enjoy learning from, and laughing with, Carolyn and Bob in this intimate interview. — E.M.

The composer and her husband, Bob Hullinger, in a photobooth this winter.

The composer and her husband, Bob Hullinger, this winter.

Carolyn O’Brien: (cutting up strawberries for dessert) Emotional sensitivity is great for art, but it’s rough for functioning in the world.

Ellen McSweeney: Right. In fact, something just came out in the Guardian this week that the gene for depression and creativity are the same.

CO: Have you ever heard ofAndrew Solomon? The Noonday Demon? His book actually saved my life. In 2001 my dad had kidney cancer, and I went home to take care of him. I was really screwed up about taking care of my dad: drinking at night, caffeinating all day. Self-medicating. I didn’t understand what was going on with me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon , and that was a pretty impressive book in terms of teaching me what condition I had. My sister read it with me; her name is Ellen, too. She’s my rock; she’s my closest link to anything about my history. I went to visit her and I basically said, “I need you to read this with me, I think I have depression.” After we read it, she was certain: “Yeah, you have it.”

EM: Isn’t that incredible, how someone else’s writing becomes your lifeline?

CO: Yeah, it really is. Have you read Darkness Visible by William Styron? I’ll send you home with it. I’d love that book, too. I don’t have the Andrew Solomon anymore, because I’ve bought so many copies and given them all away.

EM: For you, what is depression?

CO: There’s an amazing TED Talk with Andrew Solomon , and I haven’t found anything more articulate and precise than Andrew Solomon’s description of depression to the layperson. As soon as I heard him, I said, “Oh my God, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a complete and total breakdown. It’s a deprivation of energy. It’s like having no gas in your car—your car that feels.”

For me, depression isn’t just being sad, or self-medicating to calm down or raise up. It’s also a loss of cognitive skills. Two or three years ago, I almost got tested for Alzheimer’s because I had such terrible memory problems. Once I have the right medication balance, I’m in remission and I’m sharp again. But it scares the shit out of me when I can’t think straight. It took me forever to pass my exams at Northwestern. It took me forever to get candidacy because of it. And it was because I just didn’t have the right biochemical balance to keep my brain working. To me, that’s the scariest part: the memory loss, the cognitive problems. A loss of energy? I can always deal with that, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for days at a time on the couch. It sucks, but it isn’t as frightening. It’s the fear of losing my mind. I would miss thinking clearly.

EM: Tell me about how this life experience shapes the music, or how the music-making shapes this life experience.

CO: In 2011, which was a particularly difficult time for me, I realized that I could not think for very long. The depression was causing such cognitive problems for me that I just couldn’t. So I started this process of composing where I created a whole formal structure before I even wrote a note. And then I would just fill it in as I went, almost like building a brick structure. So I literally spiraled myself out of the depression using the Fibonacci series to write a piece. I started with the tiniest point, knowing that I could only function for a few beats, the tiniest amount of music. And then as I got to feeling better, and the meds started kicking in, I was able to spiral out more at a time. The Fibonacci series was perfect, because it’s this exponential growth. I wrote out little sixteenth notes: 1, then 3, then 5, then 8. It sounds ridiculous, but—

EM: No, it doesn’t! It makes absolute sense! What’s the piece?

CO: It’s my saxophone quartet, called Thing Contained. It’s a complete Fibonacci opening and closing up. It’s kind of one of these “everything but the kitchen sink” pieces; it’s not a perfect piece. But considering that I was in such a rough place when I wrote it, it’s special to me.