Tobin Mueller and the Influence of Illness on his Music

Guest Author Frances Wilson interviews pianist Tobin Mueller

Composer and pianist Tobin Mueller has recently completed a trilogy of recordings in which he explored three eras of Western music through adaptive arrangements, reinvention and original composition.

Each album took one year to develop. The Masterworks Trilogy included jazz interpretations and new works based on:

  1. the Impressionists (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Fauré, Carpenter)
  2. the Baroque period (J.S. Bach), and most recently
  3. the Romantic movement (Frederic Chopin).

The albums by title are :

  1. Impressions of Water and Light
  2. Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller”, and
  3. Of Two Minds: The Music of Frederic Chopin and Tobin Mueller”.)

Not only have these double-CD albums highlighted the elements of modernity found in these forebears, they have allowed Mueller to discover a personal kinship with each composer.

Tobin’s personal journey has also been colored by the challenges of dealing with a compromising illness. This relationship between the composer and his illness is what we wanted to discuss…

The Interview

Frances: You suffer from A1AD, a genetic disorder that affects your lungs, stamina, flexibility and immune system.
What is A1AD, exactly?

Tobin: Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (A1AD) results in a deficiency of beneficial proteins that mitigate swelling, bolster immunity, and do a whole host of other things. In place of these necessary proteins, my body creates a series of mutated proteins, some of which can become harmful – although in my case they are relatively benign.

I was often sick as a child, the biggest problem for me now is swelling, especially in my lungs (which are covered with blisters that are prone to “pop”). Swelling can occur rapidly and then not recede quickly enough for proper healing, resulting in areas of the lungs dying off. It creates a honeycomb effect in the lungs, lowers oxygenation, can bring on chest pain. Swelling also affects my joints, etc.

This didn’t dramatically affect my ability to work or perform until after 9/11/2001, when, while living in Manhattan, I volunteered among the ruins of the World Trade Center. (At that time, I didn’t realize I had A1AD and attributed my declining health to asthma and post-9/11 exposure.) By the end of 2008, I was coughing constantly and had to give up performing altogether. In late 2009, a specialist discovered that I also had A1AD and, with this diagnosis, my medical therapy changed completely. If we weren’t able to reverse some of my issues, the doctor gave me 8-12 years to live. But we did, and I am now doing better… in certain areas and with severe activity limitations. My shelf-life has been happily underestimated.

As a musician, how has this affected your approach?

Well, you have to learn how to play with pain, through pain. Pain can’t become an impediment, unless it’s a red flag that might lead to damage. My chest pain is something that I can ignore if it doesn’t affect my breathing too badly. My joint pain, if it’s not accompanied by severe decrease in strength (which sometimes happens) can be worked out, managed. My arm/wrist pain, though, requires rest and care.

But mostly it’s about managing things like stress. Stress is my main enemy. So, imagine the life of a musician or creative artist who avoids stress whenever possible… Kind of impossible, no?

I have a good story to illustrate: In the summer of 2009, someone ask me to write a pop rock song about the experience of an Iraq War veteran. I turned to my favorite song from the Vietnam Era for initial inspiration, “Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel. As the song reached it’s third verse, I began crying, filled with memories, loss, heartache. When the final chorus kicked in “And we will all go down together…” I was full-on weeping. Suddenly, I could barely breath. My lungs had swollen so rapidly that it was as if I had induced a bad case of pneumonia in a matter of minutes. It was terrifying.

When I got to the doctors and explained what had happened, he said simply, “Don’t cry anymore.” So, I avoid crying now, which, for a guy who honored emotions and embraced crying from both joy and sadness, this took a fundamental change to how I moved through the world. I had to learn a kind of emotional detachment, install a series of anti-empathetic circuit breakers to keep certain emotional reactions at bay. (I recall when I said to a friend that I’d been told to stop crying, their first reaction was to cry for me.)

Similar buffers are required to avoid stress.  Even minor stress has an affect, can make my lungs (and other body parts) swell. To control stress, certain lifelong ambitions needed to be jettisoned or, at least, harnessed.  I reassessed every goal, every daily and long-term process. I stopped working with people who induced stress, which was most of the people in the NYC theatre world. Ha! I stopped writing scripts, lyrics, anything to do with words (which was always harder for me than composing music). I concentrated on solo piano, gave up live performing, moved into the studio and began my multi-year process of recording as much music as I could before I can’t anymore.

Has the worsening of this problem changed how you rehearse or prepare for recordings?

For most of my life, I avoided sleeping at all costs. I used to work 10 to 16 hours a day. My most productive time of the day used to be 11:00 PM at night. I had large reserves of adrenaline and limitless energy. Now, I have between 4-6 hours of productive energy to get work done in a day. I actually take naps most afternoons! So, getting sufficient rest is something new for me, a preparation I never considered in earlier years.

Also, the nerves in my arms, especially that long one that starts at the neck and serpentines around to the funny bone down to the outer wrist, are easily irritated. It’s hard to tell if the irritation is from years playing or from A1AD; it’s probably a combination. I wear wrist braces when practicing, take anti-swelling drugs, and avoid sleeping with my elbow crooked. I can’t practice as long as I would prefer. I need to take control of my schedule, make use of the times of day when my body feels good and I’m not too tired. And I try to record only one piece per session/day. It’s a funny thing how being tired all the time makes it hard to remember things. I try not to require myself to remember more than one piece of music. It’s a stress thing for me, keeping too much in my head at one time. (I used to music direct one show, in which I’d memorized every part, while writing and working out a new show in my head, remembering several possible versions of scenes and songs, while retaining countless hours of other music, simultaneously.)

What do you do with your new “down time”?

Cook. Read. Use my iPhone to watch documentaries on Netflix. Or I watch news coverage of this exceptionally unusual political season on television. I don’t write letters and long emails like I used to, partly because I’m sometimes too tired to concentrate (and just don’t care to reach out) and partly because sometimes I need to rest my fingers and arms. I daydream too, something I used to do a lot when I was a playwright working through plot ideas.

Even if I’m not working, I’m thinking about music, writing or arranging or improvising in my head. It’s something I can’t really shut off. I’m always “working” even when I’m engaged in conversations (especially with certain people). I rarely listen to music purely for pleasure. When listening to music, I’m not only analyzing it (from the point of view of what works and what doesn’t) but I’m often rewriting it (in my head).

This is a thing I started doing as a kid. When I was in 5th-6th grade, I heard “The Boxer” by Paul Simon on one of my sister’s Simon & Garfunkel albums. I listened to it over and over, trying to figure out why I felt so moved by the music, the arrangement, the story. I wore out the LP. The same thing happened to a Reader’s Digest album of Great Composers. One side was Debussy’s piano music arranged for orchestra (something that was far more common back in the 1960s). I put so many nicks in that album it became unplayable. This obsessive drive to figure out how (and why) music affects me is something that seems to be a permanent involuntary aspect of my personality.

After your last album, you said you would never do another double 2-CD album, that it was too taxing physically. What changed your mind?

Good remembering! Yes, after my 2015 album (“Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller”), I wasn’t able to play piano for several months. I couldn’t even lift a glass or turn a doorknob without pain. The nerves in both arms, especially my right elbow and wrist, stayed swollen for quite a long time. Actually, a year later, after steroids and physical therapy, it is still an issue. I promised myself not to do that to my body again. But when I began working through Chopin’s repertoire (my new album is an homage to Frederic Chopin), I realized there was simply too much there for a single disc. I have been far more careful with my writing/rehearsal/recording schedule and more aware of my technique (especially when improvising, when I used to lose technique while in a daydreaming state of carelessness). I came out of this project in much better shape. Tequila helped too!

Has your disorder affected your compositions? Your music’s content?

That’s a great question, especially after working with Chopin over the past year. As you know, he suffered from tuberculosis his entire life. His sister contracted it at age 11 and died of it at age 15. I often considered how his illnesses (he had more than one) affected his music. I was also conscious of my own parallels: my older sister died from A1AD complications (liver failure) at age 19, after being sick since she was 9. For my part, I had every malady a child could contract, including 5 bouts of different measles and several bouts with pneumonia. Yet, instead of it being any kind of 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. We would talk about things in ways that just didn’t happen at times when the family was around. She would sing her favorite jazz standards as soothing lullabies, complete with stories she didn’t share with anyone else. Even hospital stays were more like spiritual retreats than impositions. Those moments apart from the “normal” world became nostalgic sanctuaries that fed my sense of self and my creative imagination.

Illness changes many things about your life. You spend far more time at home, out of necessity. You are overly mindful of diet, activity, rest, your own body’s internal conversations. I was a very social person and in my younger years hosted and attended scores of parties, events, performances, rallies, meetings, etc. But a creative artist needs solitude to think, to internally experiment, to search for and work out new modes, new inventions. The habit of periodic illness gave me that solitude. It eventually became second nature.

On a conceptual level, almost all of my music tries to lend meaning to mortality. Mortality frames beauty, is an impetus to cherish, opens the door to the sublime. The vast majority of my music celebrates this kind of substantive meaning: life is fragile, life is potentially glorious, sharing life is the way to 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.

On a physical level, I can only play hard and fast for so long until I just give out. It’s something I am less and less inclined to do. It isn’t very enjoyable anymore. Playing piano is an anaerobic activity, like lifting weights. Without enough oxygen, your muscles start to burn. Add to that an inclination toward swollen joints and stretched nerves and playing quiet, fluid music becomes far more satisfying.

On an emotional level, I want every piece of music to tell a story. Critics might believe this comes from my extensive theatre background, but it might also come from a childhood in which I wove stories in the secretly gleeful moments alone up in my bed while the family went through their motions of everyday life below.

You make being sick sound romantic…?

Well, you have to find silver linings.

I recall when I was 17, after my first lung collapse and subsequent corrective surgery, I was sitting in a recliner in the back yard and heard a bird that I didn’t recognize. I wondered through the yards until I spotted it: an oriel. Such a gorgeous tone. I decided to learn all the bird songs of every bird I might ever come across. It was a wonderful study of rhythm, intervals, and micro-tonality. (I still hold my finger in the air, eyebrows raised, and say to my wife, “Do you know what that bird is?” as we have cocktails on the patio. She almost always replies, “No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”) My favorite bird song is the Catbird’s. They are able to scat as well as the best jazz singer, never repeating themselves.

Would I love birdsongs as much without discovering them while recovering in my family’s backyard when I was a teenager?

Have you ever used birdsongs as musical inspiration?

Birdsongs are more like musical challenges than blueprints for melody. I have never quoted a natural sound, specifically, except in my head. But the Catbird challenges me every time I hear it sing. I try to live up to its inexhaustible creativity.

While I was at the music conservatory, concert pianist Jeffrey Hollander gave a presentation on improvisation. He played a four-note bird call he’d heard on the way to the hall. He then proceeded to play for twenty minutes, creating variation after variation, building, deconstructing, rebuilding, finding a climax, and then returned to the sweet recapitulation of that simple four-note motif. Astounding. It made a big impression on me.

Has Chopin’s music been more meaningful to you because of his life experiences?

Not at first. It was Chopin’s seductive sense of Romanticism that brought me closer to him, initially. He throws form out the window in his Etudes and Preludes. The chord substitutions he uses in some of his Nocturnes are strikingly new. His melodies are so easily heard as vocal lines, they live inside your head with ease. His ability to create music that remains profoundly personal, even when it demonstrates virtuoso techniques, marks the central aspect of the Romantic Era. Everything he writes comes across as private expression, an aural diary. I try to do the same thing with my own music and felt a strong affinity to Chopin’s experiments.

The intersection of illness and music became more important as I read more about Chopin, especially through the writings of George Sand. She, above everyone else, understood Chopin’s frailty. She protected his genius by protecting his health. Although she was seen as “vulgar” and almost dangerously modern in her speech, 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.” It was her relationship to his art and illness that pulled me in.

The reserve and distance Chopin maintained between himself and the world was underscored by his limited energy and worrisome health. His ‘shyness’ may well have been a mechanism required to preserve himself and, above all, protect his art. 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.”

Plus, his music is perfectly suited for intimate settings, salon performances. If he wrote for an audience, his music, in turn, was best heard in these smaller venues. And it best suited his state of health.

I realized the same thing has been happening to me, both in how my music has evolved from something meant to be played on a Broadway stage into something meant to be heard in headphones. I play in an even smaller venue: the studio. I play to an audience of one: the single listener. I try to write extremely personal music both because I find it most satisfying and because that is now my mode of communication. And I am married to my own “angel.”

So, in the end, yes – Chopin’s music has ended up touching more in ways other’s has not. And his life story is an important reason, for it is woven into his music in my own mind if not in the notes themselves. Every piece of music tells a story, if you listen closely enough (and often enough).

How has your connection to Chopin’s struggles affected the music on this particular album? [“Of Two Minds: The Music of Frederic Chopin and Tobin Mueller”]

Since I am not trying to play Chopin’s music as originally intended, but rather I’m presenting my interpretation and internalization of Chopin’s music, I have to say that his struggles indeed inform every aspect of the music on the Disc 1. [Disc 1 is Tobin’s arrangements of Chopin; Disc 2 is Tobin’s original material influenced by Chopin’s Preludes.] But it is more often his struggles against his limitations, not an expression of those limitations. His music transcends. It doesn’t accept and display. Its revolutionary energy is an aspiration of heroism. Its seductive quality celebrates love (not simply alluring beauty), is full of gratitude (not selfishness) and exists in a context of longing and sanctuary (creating a moment that is free of mortal worries).

The music that I wrote for this album (Disc 2) is full of dichotomies. The title “Of Two Minds” expresses a balanced duality, obviously Chopin and myself, but also implies Chopin and George Sand. I also try to create musical dichotomies of the Heroic and the Lover, themes found throughout Chopin’s music. Yet, the aspect of illness and mortality was never far from my mind. But these have always been themes in my music. I think Chopin merely gave me license to explore them more openly as part of the overall concept of the album.

Most of us sense in great music an extension of ourselves. It reminds us of moments past yet also it makes us ponder our future potential, our dreams and aspirations. It both reminds us and inspires us. It speaks to our specific troubles, is able to define loneliness in a way that comforts, can animate discontent in ways that motivate. It is both honest and biased, ephemeral and triumphant. It is kind of a miracle yet totally human made.

I felt Chopin sitting next to me as I interpreted his work, but balanced my desire to pay him homage with my own desire for self-expression.

What is you next project? And will you approach it differently because of what you’ve learned from your Masterworks Trilogy?

Actually, it’s going to be another double album. (I know! But I’m pacing myself.) I have too many ideas to fit into a single concept disc. Again.

I’m calling it “Afterwords”. I’ll be reading short quotes from my favorite books and then play new piano pieces inspired by the quotes. Words used to be very important to me, even as I maintained a love-hate relationship with them. They were central to my career as a playwright and poet. After I retired from scriptwriting to reduce my stress, I slowly realized that I began to miss the written word. This new project will be a healing and effortless way to incorporate words into my music again. There are so many pent-up pieces of music stored up after working through The Masterworks Trilogy. I want to write music that has nothing to do with Bach or Chopin or Debussy or anyone, at least not directly. I want to write just for me. I’ll still pay homage to inspirational artists, but it will be authors instead of composers. Plus, the project will include many opportunities for musical storytelling, something I love doing.

Tobin Mueller

Tobin Mueller’s website is an excellent resource to sample his music, his videos, his work as a visual artists, and to read many of his writings.

His recordings are available on iTunes, CD Baby, and Spotify.

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio. He is a published composer, author, and his original compositions and piano recordings have been streamed by more than a million listeners worldwide.

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