mania 1: a sustained state of elevated or irritable mood
My first encounter with Isao Tomita was in a Digital Art class. After a hasty twenty-minute tutorial on Adobe Illustrator, we were plunked in front of the computers and told to vaguely come up with something. I had just read The Crying of Lot 49, and communicative entropy was on my mind, so I decided to make a piece about it. I was noodling around, making a collage, spying on the person next to me. The professor started playing YouTube videos to calm our minds like a babysitter playing Mozart. I don’t remember any of the pieces that were queued except Tomita’s rendition of “Clair de Lune.” I’ll never forget the euphoria of that first listen. I took a blurry picture of the screen which had his name on it to remember him and that was the beginning of things.
depression 1: insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
I’m still coming to terms with my diagnosis. I’m still stretching my legs out into it, finding the boundaries, seeing patterns I didn’t notice before. I notice my mood, I’m hyperaware. I look back into my past at times where I’ve acted in ways that I didn’t understand. Now that I do understand, I’m somehow more unsettled than before. In The Great Gatsby, the narrator proclaims, “It was all very careless and confused.”1 I’m not careless anymore (though I am confused), and that is hard, because to not have a care in the world is a great thing, and now I realize I can never go back to that again. You can’t unlearn your diagnosis in the same way that you can’t unbreak an egg. And knowledge of being on shaky and unsettled ground doesn’t make the ground less shaky or unsettled.
mania 2: inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
The best parts of Tomita’s “Clair de Lune” are the sweeping, ascending melodies that come around forty seconds in. The best description of this piece comes from a thoughtful YouTube comment which simply says, “A dream in amniotic fluid.”2 Indeed, you could imagine this piece being interpreted by a fetus inside his mother’s womb; it is that primal and imaginative. Every phrase is thoughtful painstakingly produced piece by piece. Polyphonic synthesizers didn’t exist at the time Tomita was arranging on a Moog in 1974, so the whole album had to be recorded track by track, line by line, and then put together. But I have to imagine it was worth it to hear a symphony’s worth of music from a closet. “Clair de Lune” was a dear comfort to me. I listened to it walking along the Hudson river from Battery Park to Fourteenth Street, reading Kelly Link curled up in a hotel lobby, sitting on a cold bench in Bushwick frantically writing short stories, and most of all, lying in the fetal position waiting to fall asleep at 4:00 a.m. “Clair de Lune” made me feel important, in a way that I can’t quantify. There was peace and calm, but also power embedded in its structure.
depression 2: fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella by Thomas Pynchon in which the main character Oedipa Maas is thrust into a conspiracy involving a mail distribution company and an organization called the Trystero. As she digs up information about the Trystero, she is confronted with failures of communication and ironic situations that produce even more conspiracies, leading to Oedipa questioning her sanity. Nothing ever appears as it’s told, neither to the reader nor to Oedipa. By the end of the book, communication has failed; nothing that’s said is to be trusted, and agency is a myth.
mania 3: distractibility as reported or observed
I can’t just laud Tomita, of course. Tomita elevated Ravel, Debussy, and Muggorsky’s work, but the enchanting melody lines and complex harmonies were always there in the original compositions. I still cherish the piano version of “Clair de Lune.”
Claude Debussy attended the Conservatoire de Paris from the years of 1872 to 1879. He received both positive and negative comments from his mentors. Antoine Francis Marmontel described him as “A charming student, a truly artistic temperament; much can be expected of him.” Emile Durand called him “desperately careless.”3
I first learned about Debussy’s work in detail during my high school music theory course. We learned about planing, a technique where the composer uses two chords that move in parallel motion. The purpose is to get the audience to lose any feeling of harmonic progression—to drift in the same spot, like boats in a harbor.
mania 4: flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
There are very few things I took away from my music theory class in high school besides planing. The biggest thing is probably the first day, when the teacher drilled tonic and dominant into our heads. He would play a chord on the piano and bring his hand low, near his stomach. “TONIC,” he would say. Then he would play another chord and bring his hand up to eye level. “DOMINANT. Do you feel the tension here? Don’t you want to go home?” and on the word ‘home,’ he would play the original chord and breathe a sigh of relief. He did this maybe fifteen times the first day and at least once a week after that.
Mania feels like the dominant chord. There’s tension and I want to go home. But I also like being on the dominant chord because it’s exciting and bold, and going back to the tonic seems boring and bland. And I guess in reality, the tonic doesn’t exist. There’s no home. There’s nowhere to go.
depression 3: markedly diminished interest in or pleasure in all activities most of the day, every day
One of the tough things about being diagnosed is the constant state of doubt. Am I actually happy, or am I just manic? Am I mad at someone because they did something to deserve that, or am I actually just crazy? I didn’t expect that can of worms to be opened when I first sought treatment, and now it’s all I can think of. It’s a fruitless effort to go through old text messages, or notes on my phone, or rants that I have in the shower, or crying episodes huddled on the floor of the bathroom, but I do it anyway. I cringe at times where I’ve ruined a friendship, or hatched a business plan that I abandoned two days later. I have so many regrets, and all the self-help platitudes I’ve been taught have told me to not have regrets and to be carefree, but I can’t help myself. Now that I’ve opened Pandora’s box, I can’t cram the thoughts back inside.
“Do you ever experience feeling like people are placing thoughts in your mind?”
“Do you ever experience feelings of being followed on the street or that everyone is out to get you?”
“Have you ever experienced hearing voices or sounds that other people didn’t recognize were there?”
“. . .No.”
“You paused a little there; would you mind speaking on that?”
Panic and desperation, excuses bubble up the back of my throat and out of my mouth. It was only once. It didn’t affect my life. I’m not actually crazy.
I tried to simultaneously explain and come across as sane. One time over the summer, I was home alone and heard what I thought were my parents voices coming from downstairs. I wasn’t expecting them at the time, so I went downstairs to check if they were home, but there was no sign of them. I checked the basement, the garage, the kitchen, the sitting room. I check everywhere. He asked, “Did you ever find the source of the noise? Why do you think you heard their voices?” The answer is that I really didn’t find anything that could explain it. I offered that it was maybe the water heater?, but apparently there was enough doubt in my voice. He took a note down and I wanted to rip the pen out of his hand and cross it out because the idea that I had psychosis on top of everything was actually too much to handle. I just sat there, cheeks hot, embarrassed.
depression 4: diminished ability to think or concentrate, possible irritability or indecisiveness, nearly every day
I clung to Tomita’s “Clair de Lune” for a long time, but recently switched over to “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” A pavane is a slow, grave dance meant to be somber. I can’t really imagine dancing to “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” Rumor has it that an orchestra was rehearsing for a performance of “Pavane,” and they played it so slowly that Ravel said, “It’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess!”4
During my manic phases, I’ll listen to Tomita’s arrangement and notice the sweeping melody line and ear shattering chorus, distorted and clipped by software limitations. I’ll feel like it’s a message from God, a kind of technological mysticism. I’m enveloped, taken to the stars to live amongst the moons. I’ll hear the pavane, feel like dancing in ecstasy like the Dancing Plague of 1518.
During depressive phases, the music isn’t transcendent at all. It’s a funeral march. The organ is ominous, and instead of going to the stars I’m going underground. I hear the dissonant harmonies and oppressive percussion. The piece makes me cry thinking about the dead princess and her sad lot in life (Ravel had no dead princess in mind, so I just imagine all of the dead princesses instead).
To avoid confusion—it’s never not beautiful. I could never listen to this piece and say that it doesn’t blow me over with its raw emotional power and musical brilliance. But the music does not bring me comfort anymore. I used to say that Tomita was my rock, but now that his music basically serves as a litmus test for what exactly is wrong with me on any particular day, I’m unsettled and disturbed by it.
I think it’s a common thing, to seek something in music that can never be put into words. But the realization that my change in mood literally made me hear different things despite the recording being identical terrifies me to the bottom of my soul. That my brain could have that much power over my reality. I feel that same desperation I felt trying to explain the brief incident of psychosis I had to my therapist. It’s not that simple. Please believe me. I’m not crazy. Please believe me.
mania 5: excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences
I was really fascinated by one particular idea of The Crying of Lot 49—Maxwell’s demon. Think of a hot drink taken into a cold room. Eventually, of course, the hot drink will become cool until it matches the temperature of the room. This is entropy: the concept of irreversibility. You can’t unbreak an egg; you can’t close Pandora’s box once it’s been opened. The second law of thermodynamics famously states that entropy in a closed system can never decrease. Things will always even themselves out; the hot drink will always cool down. Many attempts to reverse entropy have been tried in the past, most of them fool’s errands. But a thought experiment conceived by James Clerk Maxwell (most notable for his work in electromagnetism) provides a method for violating the second law that provokes debate to this day.
Maxwell’s demon is a theoretical sorting machine that separates hot and cold particles, keeping the drink always hot and the room always cold. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa is the demon— she has to classify events, objects, and people as either part of the Trystero or not part of the Trystero. Because if she fails to separate the two, then there must be no difference between what is Trystero and what is not Trystero, and language fails to produce meaning. By the end of the novel, Oedipa fails. She sees everything as part of the Trystero, and thus definitions become mixed. The word becomes room-temperature. Everything becomes nothing, and nothing becomes everything.
Somewhere along the way, I became aware of my own sorting pattern. Is this a manifestation of my disorder or is it something else entirely? I keep looking for the signs, like Oedipa, and I’ve become so obsessed with trying to interpret Isao Tomita or my manic rants in the shower or the text messages of a friend that in the end, I learn nothing. Nothing is communicated because everything is communicated.
The heat death of the universe is a natural consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. In the far, distant future there becomes a point where energy is so evenly distributed that entropy can no longer increase. Everything becomes the same, a monotonous soup where all motion ceases. I can imagine the same thing happening to communication, a world where irony and sarcasm becomes diffuse and yes means no and no means yes and manic becomes depression and depression becomes manic and no matter how many times you say something in a different way, it always is interpreted the same way.
I cannot rely on Tomita or Debussy or Ravel to give me comfort or a dream or an explanation. The switch is already flipped.
finale: clair de lune
“Your soul is a well-chosen landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and good life
They don’t seem to believe in their own happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
That makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams
The great slim water streams among the marbles.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2004), 179.
- S. PS., “A dream in amniotic fluid,” YouTube Comment on “Isao Tomita- Clair de Lune (Debussy),” https://youtu.be/rlCzO0GX_bA.
- Roger Nichols, “Debussy, (Archille-) Claude” in The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians—ed. (vol. 5) (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980), 306.
- Jay Nordlinger, “New York Chronicle” in The New Criterion, 29, no. 3, (2010): 51.