BY JESSIE WANG, LEAD WRITER (COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL AWARENESS)
So you know, this story features a discussion surrounding the topics of mental health and chronic illnesses. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500, or contact your GP for tailored support.
There’s no doubt that mental health is a prominent topic among arts practitioners. Whether that’s talking about the benefits of music for our mental health, facilitating conversations that aim to destigmatise the topic, or calls for better mental health support, conversations around mental health are common for those in our arts sector.
These topics are all too familiar for soprano Yasmin Arkinstall (pictured above) and composer Michelle Greco (pictured below). Despite living across different sides of the Pacific Ocean, being classical musicians and experiencing obsessive-compulsive disorder were things that brought them closer together — thanks to the power of social media. And now, the two are composing an aria together, dedicating it to anyone with OCD.
We chat with Michelle and Yasmin about their collaboration, I Want Answers.
Hi Yasmin, thanks for chatting with CutCommon again! What have you been doing since we last chatted in 2019?
YASMIN: Hey! So lovely to be featured again, thank you so much. I’ve mainly been continuing my quest toward vocal release with my singing coach, and doing some music teaching myself at Penrith Conservatorium.
In 2020, composer Dr Eve Klein and I were awarded an Arts Projects For Individuals and Groups grant by the Australia Council for the Arts to create a new, operatic autobiographical work about my mental health and performing journey. Brainstorming for the show and collaborating on musical/lyrical ideas has been a really special experience.
I was also selected as a semi-finalist for the 7News Young Achiever Awards in the NSW/ACT Community Services Category, and was featured in the April 2021 Women’s Weekly magazine alongside a Studio 10 segment for my advocacy work.
That’s such an impressive list of achievements. Congratulations Yasmin! And Michelle, thanks for agreeing to chat with us today. What have you been up to?
MICHELLE: Thank you so much for having me! I am currently a third-year undergraduate music composition major at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, located in New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States. I study with Dr Amanda Harberg – a prolific American composer, Juilliard alumna, and amazing mentor!
I am also double-majoring in psychology, and plan to get a master’s degree in music therapy. I also teach private piano lessons, and run a vocal ensemble with students from my mother’s vocal studio.
And how do you two know each other?
M: I discovered Yasmin through her Instagram account, @theteaonocd. As someone with OCD myself, I love looking at mental health advocacy and recovery accounts because of how inspiring they are, and how they make you feel less alone. I always found Yasmin’s TikTok videos hysterical too, and looked up to her because of how confident, strong, and fun she is!
One day, I came across her personal Instagram account, @thatyasminkid, and gave her a follow. On this account, I discovered she is a classical soprano, and thought that was really cool since I am a classical composer. To my surprise, she followed me back, and I was so excited! I was like: ‘This person, who is a literal celebrity in my mind and the OCD advocacy world, is following me back! I have to send a message to thank her!’
So, I sent her a direct message thanking her, and telling her my personal story with OCD. We ended up having a lovely conversation, and even had an Instagram call where we related to each other having OCD, being piano teachers, and being classical musicians in university life.
It’s incredible social media was able to bring you together. How awesome! And now, you’re collaborating on an aria — what was the story behind it?
M: After talking with Yasmin more, I had the thought: ‘What if I collaborate with her and write a piece about OCD?’
I had watched some videos of her singing on her Instagram, and thought she was an incredible soprano who would be a dream to work with. So, I ended up asking her, and she said yes!
A few weeks later, she sent me a poem that she wrote, called I Want Answers, as the text to set to the aria. I thought the text was absolutely stunning, and I wanted to craft the perfect melody and accompaniment to bring it to life.
The piece ended up taking me about four months to write, as I worked diligently on my own and with my teacher Dr Harberg at my weekly composition lessons. There were definitely some challenges on my end, coming up with material I thought would best fit the text and flow nicely. But, with trial and error, I eventually completed the piece and was so proud to finally send it to Yasmin.
The piece aims to capture the experience of someone who has OCD. How does it do that, compositionally speaking?
M: There are a few major themes that express the repetitive and pressing nature OCD has on one’s mind. For instance, in the A sections, there is a repetitive semiquaver rhythm in the right hand of the piano that alternates between thirds, and is later varied to span different intervals. This represents OCD’s constant yet changing and manipulative nature.
The vocal melody is unsettling and ends unresolved, thus representing questions of ‘Why aren’t I ever strong enough?’ and ‘ruin[ing] everything that I long to see’.
During the B sections of the piece, there is an open, parallel-fifths theme in the left hand of the piano. This, along with the repetitive crotchet triplets in the vocal line, represents OCD ‘desperately kneading the soul’ of someone.
And from the musician’s perspective, how does it capture the experience of someone with OCD?
Y: I particularly love how it ends unresolved. When I first heard it, I was waiting for a resolution at the end but it didn’t come. Then it hit me that this fits the poem and the disorder perfectly.
OCD is never satisfied, no matter how many compulsions you do. It always wants you to go the extra mile and do another compulsion until you’re begging for respite and are too tense and exhausted. Therefore, as long as you do compulsions and give into its persuasions, there’s no resolution.
There’s also no resolution to the question of ‘Why me?’. The answer is that we’ll never know why some people are afflicted with different conditions. It just is, and that’s a cruel reality of the piece and life in general.
I also love Michelle’s eerie music motifs interwoven throughout the melodic line, and the piano feels like OCD getting the better of me as the piece continues. The key change introduces the climactic section of giving into compulsions and then it leads into a slower, softer section toward the end, which to me signifies the exhaustion and helplessness that comes with ritualising.
Yasmin, you wrote the text for this aria. Give us an idea of what it’s about.
Y: I wrote the text on a dark day stuck in an OCD cycle. Since I was 11 years old, I’ve suffered from sensorimotor OCD, involving the at-times relentless hyperawareness of bodily sensations such as swallowing, breathing, blinking. At this time, I was having a hard day with the swallowing theme. One way this theme presents itself is through the intrusive thought, ‘What if my throat closes up?’, which can lead me to do swallowing rituals. In my twisted OCD ‘logic’, these rituals prevent me from choking up or gagging in front of other people, and therefore embarrassing myself. Of course, I realise it’s irrational, but OCD is never rational. This is just a sad reality of living with OCD.
I wanted to make purpose from my pain, so with a deep tension and a headache from the stress, I wrote this poem. I was wondering the age-old question of ‘Why me? What had I ever done to have this at-times torturous anxiety disorder that exhausts me, wastes my time, and just gives me pain?’. I thought it could be a relatable text for those suffering from any chronic disorder.
The title is also a reference to OCD sufferers compulsively seeking certainty, and therefore wanting answers all the time that our feared story won’t happen. The truth is that the answers, a lot of the time, don’t exist, and we need to do therapy around sitting with that discomfort.
But what happens when the discomfort of not knowing is unbearable? This. The poem ends unresolved, just like my questions.
Sounds like you can both relate to the text on a personal level. How has the composition process worked so far, then?
M: The first four stanzas of I Want Answers were pretty easy for me to set. I remember wanting a flowy and beautiful piano introduction that transitions into a grim and repetitive accompaniment when the vocal line comes in. This represents how someone with OCD can appear happy and ‘normal’ on the outside, but is suffering immensely on the inside.
After writing the first stanza, the second one came to me instantly with the parallel fifths and triplets theme. The next two stanzas after that followed the same AB form that I had set the first two stanzas to, with some variations and a modulation in the second B section. However, the text after the climax in this section was the most difficult for me to set. I worked on it for weeks and weeks with my teacher, and finally came up with an ending I was proud of, with her help.
On the day I finished the piece and formatted the score, I sent it to Yasmin. Since then, she has been sharing snippets of her singing the piece to me, and asking me for feedback and requests to change some of the melodies so that it fits her voice the best.
Yasmin, you’ve been an OCD advocate for several years now. Have you collaborated on a project like this before, where you have a piece that was specifically composed to talk about OCD?
Y: Yes, in my upcoming one woman show in 2022 [details to be announced], there will be quite a few pieces talking about my OCD. I’m really excited to share them.
The ones we’ve explored thus far are about some unpleasant experiences I’ve had with therapists who didn’t give me the empathy or cognitive behavioural techniques I needed at the time. I feel this is an important subject to touch on, because even people in positions of power can leave the client feeling ashamed and less than worthy.
We’ve also got a fun one in the works about the wild, off-chops intrusive thoughts I’ve had!
And what about you, Michelle? Have you written a piece to advocate for mental health before? What made you interested in writing a piece of music about mental health?
M: This is my first ever piece advocating for mental health! I find that writing pieces on topics that are the most personal to me are ones I deeply connect with, and create the best art.
Being able to collaborate with someone on a piece about the same mental health struggles you both go through makes that connection even more special!
Also, as a double-major in psychology, I am super passionate about raising awareness about mental health, and telling its stories through music.
Wow — best of luck to you both! Before we go, what are you both hoping this piece will achieve?
M: I’m hoping that individuals with OCD will listen to this piece and feel less alone, just like I did when I found Yasmin’s Instagram pages. I also hope it raises awareness, and educates people about the disorder.
Y: Just like Michelle, I’m hoping that OCD and other sufferers of chronic disorders can feel less alone. We all have days where we wonder ‘Why me?’ and question our strength. To feel defeated by the illness at times is a relatable struggle that many OCD sufferers tell me about.
It was also cathartic for me to write out the poem and vent to myself. Writing can be amazing for releasing difficult emotions, and I hope that others can experience the benefits of this, too!
Michelle and Yasmin’s aria is currently in the works. Keep up to date with this music on Yasmine and Michelle’s Instagram accounts.
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