Insomnia and the Music that Eludes our Grasp

Insomnia and the Music that Eludes our Grasp


It’s time to go to sleep again before a big day, and of course I can’t sleep. As any insomniac knows, the knowledge that it’s absolutely imperative to get enough sleep makes sleep almost impossible to achieve. Typically, I’m going to toss and turn and try to fall asleep, but sleep will likely only come when I become so dejected at my prospect for a good night’s rest that I simply accept I’m going to be up all night—which is just what finally sends me off to dreamland.

In the above example, sleep only arrives when I’ve resigned myself to its absence; the sleep is actually a “side effect” of another behavior or mental state, as the mentality needed to fall asleep is incompatible with the desire to do so. Another similar phenomenon involves the conundrum of “acting naturally,” which is easy (almost unavoidable!) when one isn’t striving for it, and comes off as hilariously put-on whenever someone makes an effort to be effortless.

I’ve come to realize that the best things in life—the most cherished human experiences, as well as the most valuable states of mind—are the things that recede from our grasp. The fact that naturalness (along with many other qualities) does not yield to conscious will is partly what makes naturalness so rare and desirable in the first place. Just as there is no way to will oneself to sleep, there is no way to acquire the more valued human qualities through some trick or shortcut, because qualities like spontaneity and sincerity seem to exist as byproducts of other decisions or actions. There’s no way to become more spontaneous, directly, yet it may be possible to cultivate other habits that make it possible for spontaneity (like sleep) to arise.

In the creation of music, I wonder if there are similar self-defeating mechanisms (like trying to fall asleep). I very much desire to finish my current project on time, but a constant, acute awareness of this approaching time constraint is unlikely to help me focus on being creative—in fact, it is likely to slow me down and make me late, as getting work done on time has more to do with an awareness of the work itself rather than external expectations. Likewise there are some clearly desirable mental states (my earlier example of spontaneity is especially relevant for musicians) that I can’t will by trying to “be spontaneous,” but that I can encourage with things like a stimulating workspace, uninterrupted work time, and only accepting projects that interest me a great deal.

People who create music have to contend with an awful lot of pressing, important matters that most of us would like to influence through our own action or will, just as we can become better at an instrument with daily study or become less shy in talking about our music through hard work and engagement. So it can be frustrating to encounter those situations where that tried-and-true recipe of effort plus determination doesn’t cut it. I remember similar frustration in trying to be able to perform a difficult guitar lick at a fast tempo, until I slowed down and realized that speed doesn’t come from speed, it comes from mastery.

As a composer, there are a great many things I value more than speed—originality, for instance—and I have to ask myself: is my own (completely understandable) desire to be original likewise a self-defeating mechanism, born of the best intentions but ultimately doomed to the same kind of dead-end fate as willing oneself to sleep? If originality is born through authenticity (coupled with the fact that there’s never been another person exactly like myself), then “trying to be original” is another well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual undertaking. How often I’ve realized I was holding myself back from my creative potential by being too attached to the goal and not aware enough of the conditions that might—with a little luck—make the goal attainable.

There’s an implied human arrogance in which we tend to assume that our striving for something desirable can only hasten its attainment, whereas in reality that is not always the case. As they often say about New England roads, “you can’t get there from here!”—or, that landmark which is easily glimpsed might only be accessible through the most convoluted, backwards route that, for a time, leads us away from our chosen destination.

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.

One thought on “Insomnia and the Music that Eludes our Grasp

  1. Kevin James

    ahh, Dan. Thank you for providing the much more efficient method of reading my daily angst rather than processing it over the course of the day. I will tell you, although it won’t be of any comfort, that the act of having a child can help to overcome the whole “not being able to will yourself to sleep” thing. But it won’t cure your insomnia. Really it just gets you used to going without sleep so that the insomnia seems like less of a crisis. As for meeting the impossible deadlines – short of writing crappy music that one hopes will fade from existence as quickly as the commissioning fee is devoured by debt, there is no relief or cure as simple as having a child. Sorry.


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