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The Black Dog

For the last year and a half, I have been really up and down and the worst thing is that I feel as though I haven’t been myself for quite a long time.

Just recently, things have been getting steadily worse and worse. I’m tired all of the time and I’ve lost the ability to cope with minor irritations, instead becoming irrationally angry. I rarely enjoy myself and I struggle through each day. I’m failing to find the magic in life. The main things that keep me going are pure fantasy and I spend nearly all of my time feeling numb and attempting to escape from reality.

I had similar feelings in my early twenties but after a while, I started to fight back. I started swimming regularly, eating better, reading, listening to more music and learning about anything and everything in my spare time. I had my ups and downs like anyone else but this was an incredibly productive period of my life. I was on a high most of the time, writing music, attending concerts, etc., etc.

During this period of my life, I held down a full-time job, swam 4 or 5 miles a week, completed a degree course achieving a first-class honours degree, plus read and read and read just everything I could lay my hands on. I was incredibly productive and I achieved so much during these years.

After this, I decided to resign from my job (which I hated) and become a postgraduate research student. The first year of my studies was one of the best of my life. I can remember a summer of sitting outside in the sunshine, reading great works of literature and philosophy, listening to Mahler in the evenings and spending some terrific time with my girlfriend. I was still swimming regularly and I even started running on some days, 6 miles being about my average run.

However, after that year, I let things slide and the girlfriend left to study in Amsterdam. Money was tight and I didn’t exercise as much or eat as well. I think that is a major part of my recent downfall. Everything became a real struggle last year and I finally decided to go to see a doctor about it. The result was some counselling sessions. They were useful in the way that I was able to get a lot of my anxieties and thoughts out in the open. However, to be absolutely honest, I didn’t find out anything about myself I didn’t already know. It seemed to tide me over for a while and I carried on. Occasionally, I would have some really dark days and I would try swimming again or whatever, but I didn’t stick at anything and I soon gave up and returned to my usual state of a dreamlike existence.

This year, I have descended to a new low. If it wasn’t for my young friend Melissa, I wonder if I would still be alive. I’m shocked at how bad things have become. I don’t read like I used to. I don’t listen to music like I used to. I can’t find excitement and passion in anything anymore. I miss the old me, who used to be on a high all of the time. Back then, I could do everything and right now, I feel as though I can’t manage anything.

The worst thing is realising that I have been living in a fantasy world for so long. I have recently faced up to reality and realised that I don’t like what I find there. I have always had issues with this world, as I’m sure any intelligent person does, but I’ve normally kept on top of them. I have always had issues with anxiety but I have always accepted this as part of who I am. But it has all become too much for me recently.

Over the last three weeks, I have been trying to turn things around. Starting to swim again has been one step in the right direction. I am also trying to make time for music. Reading is something that I am struggling with as I don’t have much time for it outside of my studies but I am also trying to make some time for personal research. This is hard because my concentration level is fucked.

I think it is going to take me some time to get on top of things again, especially as the very nature of my depression is such that when I am down like this, I cannot manage very much at all. When content and happy again, I know that I will return to my high state and be able to be incredibly productive again. That’s actually part of the depression that feeds back into itself. It is horrible to find that you cannot manage even a quarter of the things that you used to find so easy to do.

At the moment, I’m in a desperate state as I don’t want this dark period of my life to impact upon my research although I think that it already is. The doctors can offer me only more counselling, which I feel is a dead end, or medication. I don’t want to take the latter option as I have my concerns about it. I don’t like the idea that taking medication might take the edge away from my life. I thrive on my anxiety when I find it is at a manageable level. I don’t want to lose it entirely. I have, however, started taking St. John’s Wort after having it recommended to me by my young friend Melissa. I don’t know how much help it will be but I am at my lowest ebb and I will try anything at the moment.

A lot of my darkness has to do with my anxiety and the nature of my personality. One of the major difficulties I have had for my whole life is the ability to interact with groups of people. Unfortunately, I have little or no ability to read other people or understand them on a social level. It causes me an immense level of anxiety to be around people. A symptom of my general anxiety is a mild obsessive compulsive disorder, which can be difficult to live with.

In addition to this, I also have little in the way of practical abilities, which is why I have pursued abstract and intellectual occupations as opposed to remaining in my previous job in the civil service, which I found both intensely boring and also essentially meaningless.

I began my studies with the romantic notion that “truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone” but I quickly found this notion challenged and undermined. Everything must be questioned. This is not only potentially very exciting but also profoundly shocking and quite depressing.

There is also the necessity of making money versus the desire to do something meaningful with my life. I love to read widely and to learn about anything and everything. I feel extremely disappointed with my education up until this point, even though I have a first-class honours degree. There is so much out there for me to learn about and I feel disappointed that I don’t have the time or money to do so. I also have doubts about myself and my own intellectual abilities even in the face of a fairly distinguished academic career thus far.

I also frequently have the feeling that life is somehow passing me by like a dream and I am left with little but a faint indication of what has passed. I wish I had the time and money to achieve so much more. All this, while around me, I see little but stupidity and mediocrity winning the day. I’m drifting on the perimeter of my own life.

Part of the problem is how exhausted I feel at the moment, as though I just have no energy. I feel as though it is impossible to study and to write, and this depresses me even more. I haven’t been writing for the last few days. I thought I would try not to force it. The trouble is that I am running out of time and I really need to start again now. I feel a lot of guilt and fear of failure, which is probably the main reason for the block. The guilt is because I feel I am not working hard enough, even I have been trying so hard to work through the block, but I have nothing to show for this time. I wish I could just get a good night’s sleep too. I have been having very vivid dreams, often involving this fear of failure in some way. I wake up at stupid o’clock and cannot sleep again.

On a lighter note, these anti-depressants are fun, aren’t they? Personally, I just love the sleepless nights, the lack of appetite and the way that I gained weight when I was taking them.

Have any of you ever read the instructional leaflet that comes with them? My advice is don’t, especially if you intend taking them.

The side effects cover just about everything awful that you can imagine. The funniest thing for me is the variation on the theme, with contrasting side effects often listed side-by-side as if the manufacturers and testers couldn’t work out what would happen, so just listed every eventuality.

For instance, I could:

– Be sleepy or have difficulty sleeping.
– Have constipation or diarrhoea.
– Lose weight or gain weight.
– Have increased appetite or loss of appetite.
– Have an increased sex drive or decreased sex drive.
– Have low blood pressure or high blood pressure.
– Experience a dry mouth or have increased saliva.

I could go on but I think you get the idea. Seems to me that they just want to cover all possibilities, with the general message being “these tablets are going to fuck you up, one way or the other”.

My latest theory is that the tablets work by giving you various side effects to distract you from your depression. You end up so busy feeling shit that you don’t have time to feel depressed.

Some of the more worrying potential side effects:

– Ringing in the ears.
– Impotence or inability to reach orgasm.
– Hallucinations and mood disorders.
– Loss of contact with your own personal reality.
– Feelings of unreality and strangeness.

My absolute favourite side effect though, which apparently only has an effect on 1 in 100 people, is that the tablets may make the individual “feel cheerful and optimistic” or experience a “general feeling of well-being”. That’s kind of the point of taking the tablets isn’t it?

All in all, it’s pretty hilarious stuff. You have to laugh, don’t you?

What exactly does the term mean and what does it mean when applied to music? Which composers would be considered postmodern?

Where does the distinction lie between modernism and postmodernism? Is this in any way related to modern and contemporary? Where does modern end and contemporary begin? What does contemporary mean anyway? Is contemporary the same as postmodern?

And finally, is postmodern/contemporary related more to the style the composer is working in or to the time period the composer comes from? Would a composer of today still be classified as modern/contemporary even if they write in a very conservative style?

I have no intention of answering any of these questions. Now that is postmodernism.

A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea – its basic motive.

(Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition)

Here are some questions thrown at me by my young friend Melissa:

I think that many composers try to compose music that specifically and intentionally sounds “modern”. I wonder why they choose to do so. Isn’t it better to write music without trying to make it sound modern? What happened to purity of music and composition? Are they trying to copy the famous modern composers? Is it because they are incapable of finding their own distinctive style? Their music would be considered more “important” or “serious” because it sounds modern?

There could be many reasons but none of them seem convincing …

What would be the use of trying to sound like the old masters? Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., have already done their work far better than most could ever emulate. Therefore the only options for serious musicians are to strike out in new directions or to find another set of musical tools: Oriental or other Asian scales, African-influenced polyrhythms, asymmetric rhythms such as you find in Bulgaria, and so on. (I have yet to hear a composer successfully combine Native American and classical idioms, although I have heard of one in the early 20th century, not one I had ever heard of before.) Such music may offend a few new music diehards but it will secure future audiences who love not mere novelty, but music that is different than others have done, music that breaks old moulds and creates new ones.

I think it was Lutoslawski who said “I try to write the music that I’d like to hear”. For the most part, that’s what composers are doing.

Of course, if you’re a composer in the 21st century, you have a huge range of potential influences which will inflect your musical preferences and style. It’s hardly surprising if some of them are “modern” in nature. Some of them also aren’t, even for “modern” composers: I find it impossible to conceive of Carter finding his late style without Mozart and Haydn – they’re such a massive influence on it.

Speaking as a composer I can only say that I don’t try to make my music sound like anything other than what I want it to sound like. I don’t know any composers who would say otherwise.

The music a composer writes is simply the sum of all the music he’s ever listened to and enjoyed, hopefully with enough original ideas thrown in to give the resulting mix a distinctive stamp. So if I happen to enjoy modern music, I’m going to have to practice a lot of self-censorship to keep it out of the music I write.

I would add that even the music I don’t enjoy makes a contribution. This would make a good compositional exercise, and I can think of a few composers who ought to try it: take some piece of music that you don’t like. It doesn’t even have to be a modern piece, maybe Wagner or Schubert for instance. It just has to be something that you know a lot of musicians greatly admire but you don’t. Try to copy that music and change whatever it is about that music that you don’t like; make it so that some essential part of it is still there, but altered in such a way that it suits your temperament, altered in such a way that you can call it your own.

For instance, recently I found myself composing something with the spare textures of post-Webern serialism. Well, I hate post-Webern serialism, but somehow what I was writing called for that sound, so the task was to see how to achieve it and still own up to it as my music. I was pleased that the resulting music sounded so much like what I think of as “me” even though a listener will definitely say “R.A.D. you’ve been taking your Webern pills again”.

Miles Davis once said the only reason to write new music was to that you were dissatisfied with what currently exists. There is no possible artistic reason to write music today in the style of Mendelssohn or Brahms or Schoenberg. We already have Mendelssohn, Brahms & Schoenberg. A composer today has to meaningfully address the question of what it means to write new music in this tradition in 2010. The answer is not to throw out the last 100 years of composition (and “atonal” music is now that old). Composers must both acknowledge the tradition they inherit and not be bound by it. This is an increasingly difficult task for each generation of composers, as they have to digest and adapt to all that has come before them.

The single most impressive musical development since World War II has been the astonishingly rapid and widespread dissemination of the practice of twelve-tone composition.

(George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality)

It does really matter, when and where I am, when I compose. Some places are generally better to sit and compose than others. But one very powerful fact is that in the late evening or the early hours of the morning I’m much more productive than in the whole day. As soon as the dark comes and I’m getting tired, I can hear the music glowing in my head. Sometimes, when I pour a drink and start to compose, I have to refresh the music just for a moment, but in the late evening hours the music is always trying to refresh me. Wherever I go, I can hear the music all the time, and of course that’s only good for the productivity. But it’s just so irritating, that it starts when I’m too tired or drunk to write anything.

Sometimes I must hurry up from my warm bed to find paper and pen – I did that only two days ago.

Sometimes particular compositional problems will work themselves out in my dreams. And once, totally without any rhyme or reason, I dreamed about a chord … I saw it on the paper and it was luminous. As it glowed it sounded in my head as well. I woke up and wrote the chord down, which sounded almost as magical in real life as it did in the dream. I still use the chord frequently, particularly if I am referring to anything magical or otherworldly, though I also like it in abstract music.



Arts

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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