Depression and the Act of Listening

By · Photography NASA / Space Telescope Science Institute · Date 6/7/2018

All music is mood music. There is party music, from Parliament to “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” there is music, like Air Cushion Finish and Mompou, to induce waking dreams and soothe the savage breast, and there is music, like Boduf Songs and Lustmord, that expresses foul, dark moods.

For me the latter can seem permanent. Because I listen through depression. Diagnosed less than two years ago, I have had it for two decades.

I used to listen to music for pleasure. When I was small, I loved “Songs and Hums of Pooh.” That is my earliest clear memory of listening to music. Playing that record endlessly for my young daughter filled me with the physical feeling of comfort.

As a pre-teen, I listened as a practicing and then professional musician. In college and graduate school, I studied composition; listening was primarily analytical. Over the past decade, I have put in substantial hours as a music critic, deepening that analytical listening to an almost forensic mode. It was still a pleasure, a feeling of satisfaction in the workings of my mind.

With the exception of certain pieces, recordings, and individual performances, music is no longer a pleasure for me. Contemplating putting on an album, sitting down, and doing nothing but listening to it fills me with dread.

Studies show that music the listener characterizes as “sad” has different effects on people with good mental health and on the depressed. A great Whitney Houston or Frank Sinatra ballad can be the balm for angst or heartache. For someone with depression, that same medicine has an insidious, poisonous effect.

Perhaps that is the key part to understanding my own experience: why I can’t bear to listen to most of the music I used to love. Even thinking about those records and hearing bits of them in my memory fills me with sour, nerve-wracking anguish. Instead I can only listen, obsessively, to a handful of things.

My generally obsessive listening habits fit neatly into the patterns of 20 years of depression. In the late ‘90s, I would listen to only Bruckner or Jackie McLean for months at a time. Later, the only things that interested me were the music of James Tenney, Jelly Roll Morton, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I latched onto the idea that through records I could find the impossible, lost moment when one specific musical idea first emerged, as if there was a single phrase or note that bridged James Reese Europe and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Acutely aware of my condition, I developed something of a negatively reinforcing feedback loop. I can no longer listen to Tenney—bitter because he had become a model for my own composing—Morton, Beethoven, Europe, and the ODJB, along with so much more. This pushing away is wrapped up in the overall mystery of what depression has done to my mind.

Depression is complex, obdurate, personal. But there are some features common to everybody who has it. The great chroniclers of the condition, Richard Burton and Andrew Solomon, have respectively described them as self hatred—“Thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself”—and the inability to remember what love is. “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” David Bowie’s “Breaking Glass” turns this insight into a flaming arrow aimed at my mind:

BabyI’ve beenBreaking glass in your room againListenDon’t lookAt the carpetI drew something awful on itSeeYou’re such a wonderful personBut you got problems oh-oh-oh-ohI’ll never touch you

I love my daughter without thought and effort. It is fulfilling and guiding. I know she loves me. I can’t feel that in my body like I used to, but my mind convinces me that it’s true. I hold onto it.

Now, I can’t honestly say that I love music. The pieces are there: I can see how the mechanism inside me is supposed to work. But it simply doesn’t. Such is my frequent experience with live music, most of which I encounter as a critic. When things are really working, I can hear every note fall into place, the composers and musicians coalescing. My mind explains to me in the abstract the thrill and satisfaction that I would normally feel. I can sensitively and absolutely identify and describe the emotions I should be having—perversely, depression has made my empathy acute. It also means I can accurately outline the chasms inside me.

When I first started listening to Mahler, I was consumed. His fecundity, the riot of ideas, the riverrun of his music through time and memory. I didn’t have to think about anything. I could feel it. It was physically fulfilling and I got it. His symphonies made the days good.

Good days now are the absence of bad days. On bad days, I carry anxiety around in my torso. The inertia lodges in my elbows, knees, and neck. At the base of my skull are millions of tiny arms frantically waving, trying to keep my mind from latching onto any thought. If I don’t have any thoughts, then my head is peaceful.

A peaceful head ensures capability. I needed a peaceful head to write. The balance is so delicate, though, that writing this turned that peace into chaos.

The first time I listened to Dexter Gordon’s “Manhattan Symphonie,” he seemed to literally speak to me. Gordon was forming words with his horn and sharing them. That piece transformed music from a hobby to the focal point of my intellectual and aesthetic life. Listening and hearing so intimately was my natural experience for decades. Now, with some agonizingly, precisely defined exceptions, I avoid that experience. I can’t bear the intimacy because it causes chaos. Mahler and I no longer share any humanity recognizable to me—he is dangerous. I look at the dozens of recordings of Mahler symphonies on my shelves. That turns on the white noise of my anxiety.

Compelled to press on, because I want to be normal, I choose music to listen to. I hope to find the one thing that will “work.” I can listen to Schubert’s Impromptus D.899, the Piano Sonata D.960, and the String Quartet No. 15—but only as played by Mitsuko Uchida, Radu Lupu, and the Quartetto Italiano. Schubert knew that syphilis would soon kill him, and his music from that period swings between darkness and transcendence. I can’t indulge in those sensations, and neither do these performances. Instead, I hear a control and balance, a sense that the chaos of complex feelings are separated from me by a kind of membrane. It may be vanishingly thin, but it is there. Safety is possible.

I latch on to Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, “Apocalyptic.” The title doesn’t reveal everything in the work, but I take it and run with it. Music with a sense of dread or doom is a voluptuous comfort. The sound of Bruckner’s eschatology, of Scelsi, Radulescu, or Sunn O))) trying to tear a hole in the fabric of the universe—or ambient music that builds a sonic landscape of the Earth, wiped of humanity—feels like a necessity. Depression strips my worldview down to a basic and harsh reality; this is the only music that can transport me out of time and place. It affirms my ego.

Some people find comfort in being wrapped up physically. Feeling some pressure on their bodies produces a somatic safety. (Weighted blankets have become popular recently.) I get some of this from music with a crackly timbre that fills a wide frequency range—like white noise but with pitch—and I find it in Tim Hecker’s music. I’ve felt this through—again—Sunn O))), live, where the massive volume of their sound reaches into the body with an intimacy that would be unbearable in any other situation. The sound waves travel through and connect everyone in the crowd. They obliterate the individual soul. It’s a relief from myself.

Some minimalist music transports me, too: Simeon ten Holt’s “Canto Ostinato,” Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies, the trio of “Music in Fifths,” “Music in Parallel Motion,” and “Music in Contrary Motion,” by Philip Glass. The problem is that I’m acutely aware of the technique of composition. It filters through into my directed mind, the very thing that is damaged right now. It’s hard to predict, but as often as not, that music takes a great gouge out of the center of my torso.

I don’t pick out this music through any rational self-examination. I stumble upon it. Intentional choice has been impossible. The idea of looking at my collection and trying to decide what to listen to is paralyzing. I’ve been disappointed by hearing the music from my head on CD (Mahler Seven), and even from the idea of ever listening to a wonderful recording a second time (Glenn Gould’s Brahms Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118). This is my perception of music, filtered through the uncontrollable priorities and fears of my disease.

One spring day two years ago, I found myself listening to the blues. I liked it—somehow in my debilitated state I had forgotten that. This seems contrary to all I’ve written: that I feel too much, and so can’t bear to hear feelings in someone else’s music. But again, so much of the way sound works on my brain is still a mystery.

Like millions of others, I take a pill every morning and visit my psychiatrist every few months. I read, too, Burton and Solomon and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Schopenhauer and Camus. I have a floor that feels solid enough that I only occasionally worry about a weak board. As long as the floor endures, I endure, and endurance is the one thing that makes existence and improvement possible. This is going to take some time.

The blues are what I need most. The blues are the soundtrack of endurance. It is a music with universal empathy, the precious and liberating feeling that none of us are anyone special. The dark blues, the happy blues, the indigo moods. Robert Belfour singing, “What in the world is wrong with you,” John Lee Hooker purring, in “Serves Me Right to Suffer”:

It serves me right to sufferIt serves me right to be aloneMy doctor wrote me a descriptionFor milk, cream and alcoholMy nerves are so badI couldn’t rest, I couldn’t sleep at night

That’s depression in two lines. Hooker sings it, people listen, and that’s it. It’s all so normal. And that’s how the blues feel to me. I can listen to them and feel normal. That’s all I want. ¶