In June 2016, the Piano Dao blog published my interview with pianist and composer Tobin Mueller in which he speaks frankly, at times painfully so, about his chronic illness and its effect on his creative life. Now, in this guest post, Tobin Mueller discusses how the music of Chopin in particular has enabled him to transcend the limitations of his illness…..
Something unexpected happened on my way to the future: my body got older much faster than my brain. Yet, I can say with certainty, I am enjoying my life as much as ever, albeit with altered definitions for expressions like “work day”, “feeling good” and “ambition.”
My latest recording celebrates the transcendence of illness and limitations. “Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin and Tobin Mueller” is not just an homage to Chopin, but a tribute to music that transforms and aspires. Disc 1 is made up of jazz-inflected interpretations of Chopin; Disc 2 includes three original piano sonatas based on his Preludes. (It’s a double album.)
Most people sense in music an extension of themselves. Music both reminds us and inspires us. It reminds us of a glorious past while making us ponder our future potential. Chopin, however, does something more. He doesn’t just remind me how great music can be, but how the act of creating music can eclipse pain, weariness, melancholy and doubt.
My musical conversations with Chopin proved to be the most satisfying I’ve had in recent years. Perhaps it’s because his music incorporates jazz-like changes and a constant sense of improvisation. If I’m being honest, however, our shared history of health issues may have more to do with it.
As you know, Chopin suffered from tuberculosis his entire life. In addition, his sister contracted it at age 11 and died of it at age 15. I’ve often considered how his illnesses (he had more than one) affected his music. In my youth, I had every malady a child could contract, including 5 bouts of different measles, three of pneumonia, 7 weeks lost to mononucleosis [glandular fever], etc. Yet, instead of it being a burden, I loved those afternoons at home with my mother, not having to attend school. She let me drink soda when I had a fever, something not allowed otherwise. She’d talk in ways she never would when the family was around. Even hospital stays were more like spiritual retreats than impositions. (I had 6 collapsed lungs and several surgeries as a teenager.) Those moments apart from the “normal” world became nostalgic sanctuaries that fed my creative imagination.
Composers, writers and musicians need to spend a lot of time alone to nurture and perfect their craft. My illnesses provided me with a quiet space to practice productive solitude.
In addition, my sister died after a 10-year illness from A1AD complications. Seven years ago, I learned that I shared this same condition. I was 15 when she died. Her death affected my entire creative life. (Her dying wish was that I learn to play Joni Mitchell’s “River” and to understand the music theory behind it. This may seem peculiar, but ours was a very musical family and my sister tried to pass along as much of her musical expertise as she could.) Did the death of Chopin’s sister (again, from a shared illness) affect his creative life, as well?
On a conceptual level, almost all of my music tries to lend meaning to mortality. Mortality frames beauty, is an impetus to cherish, ironically opens the door to the sublime. The vast majority of my music celebrates substantive meaning: life is fragile, sharing life in an honest way is how to conjure joy. Even my fast songs tend to end softly, like an amen. Even my slow songs tend to have a discordant moment of unexpected drama tucked somewhere in the middle, as a reminder. I can’t help but find these same sentiments in Chopin’s music, these same celebrations.
Unlike Chopin, most of my adult life was conducted in good health. I had almost infinite energy, a huge reservoir of adrenaline. I viewed bouts of illness as mere interruptions. (Chopin probably felt the same way in his 20s.) There was an effortlessness to much of what I accomplished. But after 9/11, I began to develop omnipresent lung issues. I dismissed them as a result of volunteering at Ground Zero, recalling the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” By 2010, however, I coughed continually. I had to stop performing. When chest pains became too intrusive, when I had trouble simply breathing, my wife finally convinced me to go to a doctor. I was diagnosed with A1AD. The condition was exacerbated by 9/11 exposure, but it was a ticking time bomb, regardless.
The specialist who delivered the diagnosis gave me 8-12 years to live. I was 54.
Of course, old musicians never die, they just go bar to bar. Old composers just decompose. But, then again, some composers never die, they just become music.
A1AD (Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency) occurs because of a genetic mutation. This mutated gene results in a deficiency of proteins that mitigate swelling, bolster immunity, and do a whole host of other beneficial things. In place of these necessary proteins, my body creates mutated ones, some of which can be harmful. (These harmful proteins are what killed my sister 45 years ago. Her liver failed, over time, trying process them.) This was why I was always sick as a kid, why I’ve had a sinus infection for 30 years, why I am prone to flu and pneumonia. This is also why my lung tissue, joints and nerve fibers swell up (and fail to un-swell in a timely manner), triggered by stress, diet, or repetitive activities like playing the piano.
Stress is my main enemy. Here’s a good story to illustrate: I was asked to write a song about an Iraq War veteran. To get myself in the mood, I turned to my favorite Vietnam Era tune for inspiration: “Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel. (It’s a remarkable example of songwriting and creative production.) As the song reached its third verse, I quietly began crying, filled as I was with memories, loss, heartache. When the final chorus kicked in, what had been a happy drinking lyric transformed into a full-on comrades-in-arms oath of inevitable destruction, “And we all go down together”… Tears flowed from my eyes; my nose started to run. Suddenly, I could barely breath. My lungs had swollen so rapidly it was as if I had induced pneumonia in a matter of minutes. It was terrifying.
When I got to the doctors and explained what happened, he simply said, “Don’t cry anymore.” So, I avoid crying, along with many other things…
I avoid the stress of directing, live performance, traveling alone. I avoid staying up late, practicing too long, juggling too many thoughts at once. I avoid encounters with stressful people, stressful deadlines, stressful exercise. I avoid red wine, air that has particulates in it, sounds that are too loud.
In short, I’ve changed my entire life. I no longer live in Manhattan. I’m semi-retired. I plan my schedule to accommodate rest times, pill times, neti pot times. I reassessed every goal, every daily and long-term process in the context of short term health. My “work day” has decreased from 16 hours to 6, usually with a nap wedged in there somewhere. “Feeling good” now means managing pain so that it doesn’t suppress minimal activity. “Ambition” no longer includes dreams of mounting a show on Broadway or performing at The Garden; I just want to record as much as I can before I can’t.
Changing my life has not been a bad thing. On the contrary, creating an “Act 2” is like being able to live yet another life. I’ve already done the over-busy workaholic always-on-the-move social whirlwind thing. Having time to read again, to listen to other people’s music, to cook at leisure, all these are quality of life increases. I don’t mind having a “simplified” social calendar. I like being able to ignore Facebook guilt-free. I embrace going to bed early and maybe watching an old film. I love sitting in the yard and listening to songbirds…a healthy relaxation as opposed to an irresponsible use of time. I savor walking along Long Island Sound, breathing deeply the salt air, thinking this is exactly what the doctor ordered. When I am able to practice at the piano, I feel blessed, no longer compelled for reasons that have more to do with expectations than fulfillment.
The funny thing is, I’m as productive as ever. In many ways, having greater calm in my life has equipped me with the space to enjoy each new idea. Without rushing about, I am content to relish. And I am writing more music per year than I did twenty years ago.
Bending my life to consequences of illness has made my music more personal than before. It’s not just that I’m not writing for characters in a musical. I’m writing for myself in a different way, to become the music I imagine represents my spirit. It’s yet another reason I was drawn to Chopin.
His music is profoundly personal, even when it demonstrates virtuoso techniques. Everything he wrote comes across as private expression, an aural diary. There is a revolutionary amount of spontaneity in his music. Chopin provided me license to explore these aspects of my music without apology, with happy abandoned.
And then there is his relationship with George Sand.
The intersection of illness and music became more important as I read through the writings of George Sand. She, above everyone, understood Chopin’s frailty. She protected his genius by protecting his health. Although she was seen as “vulgar” and almost dangerously modern in her mannerisms and beliefs, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (George Sand’s real name) proved to be his most nourishing friend and most influential love. He called her his “angel.” I consider my wife, Suzanne, to be my angel. Without question, her devotion to my health has nourished my music. I love this parallel with Chopin. George Sand not only nursed him, she cherished his innocent elegance (unique among the Bad Boys of the Romantics). Sand worried that “his sensibility is too finely wrought, too exquisite, too perfect to survive for long.” Suzanne has said very similar things about my innocence and openness, traits that become more precarious with age.
Chopin’s ‘shyness’ may well have been a mechanism required to preserve himself and, above all, protect his art. The reserve and distance Chopin maintained between himself and the world may well be explained within the context of his limited energy and worrisome health. His music is perfectly suited for intimate settings; small salon performances also suited his state of health. Indeed, my music has evolved since I’ve had to give up live performing. Recording alone in the darkened studio, often with an elbow or wrist brace to battle nerve pain, deters me from playing loud passages or extended runs. So, I simply avoid writing them.
I now play to an audience of one: the single listener whom I imagine is sitting in headphones. I write extremely personal music both because I find it most satisfying and because that is now my only mode of communication.
I always experience a sense of magic when I sit at the piano – a very old magic that, paradoxically, makes me feel very young. Adrenaline and serotonin may have something to do with it, but there truly seems to be a mystical element. To be a part of the miracle of music-as-unbroken-mutual-inspiration is an ongoing thrill. Was it my imagination that Chopin sat next to me as I rearranged his work, balancing my eagerness to pay tribute with my desire for self-expression?
Interpreting Chopin was not just a privilege, but an opportunity to grow and commune. After “Of Two Minds,” I feel as if Chopin’s music has woven itself into my own, even as our lives are now somehow linked. I realize this is a surreal internal fiction, but it feels no less real. Above all, I hope you hear it in my music. The piano binds so many of us. Are not all musicians connected by a magic we cannot explain?
― Tobin Mueller, December 2016
Tobin Mueller has composed and performed musical theatre, jazz, progressive rock, pop, classical, film scores and children’s music. He has written fiction, political essays, poetry, domestic humor and video games. He has worked with Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, Michael Hedges, Donny McCaslin, Maynard Ferguson, Jon Anderson (from Yes) and Brian Welch (“Head” from Korn), among others. As a Dramatist Guild playwright and composer, he’s had six musicals produced in Manhattan. In 1994, he was inducted into the United Nations’ Global 500 Roll of Honor, in London, for his work with youths and the environment.
Mueller’s official website www.tobinmueller.com is an excellent resource to sample his music. His recordings are available on CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.