Composing in Dreamland

Composing in Dreamland

Although I’ve heard numerous accounts of people having dreamt music, I had never had a similar experience until this morning.

Music history abounds with examples of composers supposedly being smitten by some hauntingly beautiful musical material, only to find that their memory began to fail them as they scrambled to jot some of it down; Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata is perhaps the most well-known example of a piece at least partially indebted to received “dream music.” And even the most cursory historical survey makes it clear that more than a few prominent composers (*cough* Berlioz) often induced an intentional dream-state with a little help from opiates, hashish, absinthe—whatever did the trick! Whether or not the source of the vision is a dream or hallucination, in both cases a similar end is achieved: the conscious mind becomes aware of something that is revealed fully-formed, giving an impression that is both familiar and foreign: familiar in that it does represent something worthwhile and valid about ourselves, but foreign in the sense that the experience gets delivered to us like a baby from a stork. Who among us hasn’t had some kind of dream that left them reeling in awe, yet perplexed, even a little put-off that we, the conscious mind, weren’t in on the surprise?

My musical experience while dreaming was perhaps atypical. First of all, the music I heard was interesting to me, but aside from the usual dream-awe at a fully-formed experience I did not feel that there was anything particularly exceptional about the music. So while I wasn’t in a rush to write it down for use in a future opus, I also was pleased to notice that I had little difficulty remembering what I had experienced.

But the strangest part of the experience, which I only noticed when I woke up, was that music had been playing near my sleeping self the whole time—a very loud helping of “Appetite for Destruction” served up by the plumbers working next door—and while I hadn’t consciously heard the radio, my subconscious must have. While my dream-music was totally different in content from anything on the GNR album, it was stylistically very similar. In fact, my dream-music sounded pretty much like a cut that got pulled off the record at the last minute. There were discernible lyrics, too—and a quick Google search tells me they’re not on the album, which the remodeling crew continued to loop all morning. I see now that my mind interacted with an external stimulus, but I’m not really sure what happened next. Was I doing some “sleepcomposing” In The Style Of?

I’d be very interested in hearing about any other experiences that anyone has had relating music and dreaming, especially from other composers; I wonder if our minds get fidgety when not composing?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Composing in Dreamland

  1. barakperelman

    I remember about ten or more years ago I dreamt I was playing a study for two keyboards and I had the score in fron of my face, but it was so complex that it took me one year to write it down and perform it with another pianist. Since then I have had dreams of composition, of meeting composers, many times with Schonberg and I believe Glenn Gould and others etc…

    But at some point I stopped composing music that came easily to me, like in dreams or improvisation or some clever ideas, now I am only concerned with what does not transmit easily, that is the only ideas that make it on a page are those that took immense amount of focus and thought and recomposition.

  2. micahelx

    I’ve been awakened by enormously lush chording – I’m trying to notate it but the chords are too sophisicated….

    it’s almost like that dream where the ochestra is playing the intro to the Emporer and you don’t know the piece —

  3. WR

    Years ago (close to the time when I actually did compose a bit), I had a dream of attending the world premiere of a symphony I had written. It was a one-movement work for full orchestra, a little over twenty minutes long, written in a sort of dense mid-20th century style that was somewhere in the vicinity of Mennin, Persichetti, and Sessions. I heard the entire piece from beginning to end, and it was performed very well. I was sitting in a box seat, stage right. I remember that the audience loved it and gave it and me a big ovation, but I kept thinking that it was well-written and effective, but too brainy and heartless and not really what I wanted to write. But I did hear and understand the musical argument, and thought it was solid stuff. I had written it, after all!

    Another time I had a dream of an incredibly compressed piece of music played by, of all things, some kind of ensemble of maybe ten or so musicians on what seemed like middle-eastern instruments, and it was set in a beautiful courtyard on a lovely evening. I didn’t feel I had written it, though. The music was extremely fast and dense and multilayered, but still light and transparent to the ear. And it was gorgeous. It seemed to contain an astonishing amount of musical information in a couple of minutes (that’s all it lasted), as if there were several superimposed high-speed fugues happening at once, but somehow so cunningly composed that one could comprehend it all. It induced a state of ecstasy, wonder, and rapture in me. Later, I actually tried to figure out if I could notate any of it, but failed. I still remember that dream music as being a high point in my musical life.

    I have had other fragmentary music dreams of “original” music I’ve never heard in real life to my knowledge, but those two I describe have really stuck with me over many years as major dreams.

  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    My one dream-piece was incredibly vivid. I startled awake having heard it complete, and wrote it down in pencil in the early morning hours, perhaps 2 a.m. In the later sunlight of morning, the paper revealed a pile of chicken-scratch, but enough of it was clear that it rebuilt the dream sound as I followed the markings. I drew it out carefully in ink, and did an overdubbed recording to lock down the sound. Over the years it has been performed numerous times, a dramatic piece to hear, see and perform.

    i cried in the sun aïda (composed 1973; this performance from 1994)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.