It was a lovely June evening in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. I was playing banjo with cellist Hank Roberts, bassist Robert Black, and Robert Mirabal, who sang and played drums and flutes of the Pueblo tribe. One of Hank’s tunes called for us to make animal sounds. Something about this evening’s performance induced in me the sense that I was channeling those sounds, not just making them. I closed my eyes and don’t even remember what noises came out, but it seemed as if they were not coming from, but through me.
That’s a sensation I occasionally have at the drafting table when composing and, sometimes, when soloing on stage, my focus seems more of a trance than just mere concentration. A lot of times, work I do at the drafting table seems like . . . well, like work. Ideas are hard to come by and I often will end up with 30 to 50 pages of pencil sketches before things begin to flow. Apparently, I have to get every bad idea I’ve ever had out onto paper before something else takes over. I think of this something as the muse.
And yes, I stereotypically think of the muse as a her, a Galadriel-like presence that demands to see a certain amount work and effort put into a project before she will add her thoughts, Elven Waybread, and much better ideas to the project. But she first needs to see obeisance to the work and effort. Otherwise, I fear, she’ll just move on to someone else. Always before this moment, I know exactly where the ideas come from and I’m conscious of a “pre-compositional” plan that I may have created and which I am trying to follow. Pages and pages of scrawls (and doodles, which I believe help me think) collect. But, when the muse kicks in, I get rid of the plan, get out of my own way, toss many of the sketches, and start to play. And I have no idea where the ideas come from.
A number of years ago I attended several workshops led by the iconic experimentalist in photography, Jerry Uelsmann. One time he counseled the students to “work every day. Don’t take any days off. But go into the studio and, instead of working, play.” That’s a lesson I’ve sometimes succeeded in adhering to. His images display a great deal of creative play and, in my mind, a metaphysical tap into a dream-like, surrealist land.
Careful analysis, planning, and past musical studies I believe are a part of the process for a composer and musician. All of the listening, performing, and writing I’ve done before are part of this. Technique is essential before one can make it non-essential. When I taught music theory, I told my students to learn the process of, say, part-writing, so that they could later forget it. The idea is to integrate the concepts of logic and structure that is inherent in creative development into their own work and to eventually bypass the specific rules for a larger concept of discipline and expression.
The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s a timeworn argument that upsets a number of artists. (I know, I’ve been on the receiving end of this consternation.) Yes, the work needs to be applied and the technique needs to be in place, but, if we’re truly doing our job, then a certain level of informed ignorance is intrinsic to the process. A foundation of technique needs to be in place before that technique is discarded.
In The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1957-58, the visual artist writes that “no artist will be at ease with an opinion that holds him to be a mere handy-man of art, the fellow who puts the paint on.” (Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 22). That’s not what I’m saying; if we’re doing our work, that means we’ve done our work, laid a foundation from which to develop our own creative expressions of the reality around us. We then open up to something larger than our individual selves. Shahn counters this later on:
But the subconscious cannot create art. The very act of making a painting is an intending one; thus to intend and at the same time relinquish intention is a hopeless contradiction. . . . But the great failure of all such art, at least in my own view, lies in the fact that man’s most able self is his conscious self—his intending self. (Shahn, p. 44).
All I can counter is that life is full of mysterious contradictions: individual consciousness succeeds nothingness and proceeds eventually to nothingness; and there is no absolute right and wrong in many instances, though we draw battle lines and die for our beliefs (especially in academic settings). Intention is important to hang on to before we then turn that intention over to the muse and let the unconscious take over.
As a student of Charles Wuorinen in the 1990s in Buffalo, I asked him to teach me serial technique, as I had never really studied it in much depth. Over time he showed me how to structure a composition using Milton Babbitt’s time-point techniques. Eventually I told him that I was concerned that this technique would just render my music similar to the music of many other composers at the time. “All creativity comes from a higher power,” he responded, “you just have to trust in that.”
I learned to put my faith in that maxim. I devoted myself to a daily practice of composition as taught by Uelsmann and as demonstrated to me by Wuorinen, Donald Erb, David Felder, Peter Maxwell Davies, and other teachers I encountered—not in order to create a large body of work for posterity, but so that I could keep improving and developing. Stephen Pressfield says in The Artist’s Journey, at the beginning of the chapter titled “The Artist’s Journey is Dangerous,” that “the artist, like the mystic and the renunciant, does her work within an altered sphere of consciousness. Seeking herself, her voice, her source, she enters the dark forest. She is alone. No friend or lover knows where her path has taken her.”
So, I invoke the muse each morning before composing. (Pressfield says that he “prays” to her before beginning work.) And I follow John Cage’s advice to “begin anywhere.” That truly works for me. Instead of staring at the blank page and thinking too much, I just start. And what I write may be crap, but it’s important for me to work, to be in motion. I think at the drafting table. Without Mozart’s precocious ability to compose an entire piece in my own limited brain, I show up at the drafting table and begin to scrawl. George Gershwin once said that “I write 15 songs a day, and that’s just to get the bad ones out of my system.”
Somewhere as a beginning composer, even though I lacked much technique or experience I somehow realized that if I was going to write anything good, I would have to compose “a number of stinkers.” And that was exactly what happened. It’s a diurnal habit and my day feels incomplete if I somehow don’t compose, preferably first thing in the morning.
Octavio Paz says in his epic poem, A Draft of Shadows:
Are there messengers? Yes,
space is a body tattooed with signs, the air
an invisible web of calls and answers
Animals and things make languages,
through us the universe talks to itself.
[ A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems New Directions, 1997, Trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 147]
This is something I truly believe. As musicians and composers, not only do we need to craft the art of deep listening, as Pauline Oliveros might call it, but to extend that depth to channeling the messengers—ultimately and essentially our own interior voices—that speak to us.