Rebellious Muses

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention—William Shakespeare

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.—David Hume, 1739

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.—Jonathan Haidt1, 2012

dancer-streetphoto credit: Marc von Borstel

When I sit down to compose, calm my conscious mind and listen, musical ideas are always there, waiting to be heard. Although I realize that unconscious mental processes produce these ideas, the process often seems magical, as if someone else were giving me ideas. Small wonder that conceptual metaphors such as muses, daemons, and inner beasts have endured for centuries.

I sometimes use such metaphors as a means of self-distancing. For example, if I temporarily imagine that the ideas that emerge from my unconscious are gifts sent by muses, then during my early 30s my muses rebelled.

Reason Learns to Serve

Before that time, I assumed I was consciously choosing the musical materials I wanted to work with. Then, unexpectedly, my muses began defying a priori intellectual decisions. They decided abstract constraints were irrelevant. They didn’t give a damn about rational categories like “modernism,” “post-modernism,” or any other “isms.” They wanted to make choices based on spontaneous reactions and a few loose rules of thumb. They decided that my reasoning skills should serve their passions and ideas, not vice versa.

They began pushing musical ideas on their own, mixing musical styles as they pleased. They presented me with whatever ideas and combinations of ideas struck them as exciting and emotionally engaging. And, as they unmasked their pent-up passions, they began relentlessly pushing me to make my music more direct, immediate, and emotionally expressive.

They have behaved that way ever since. They give me musical ideas they find exciting, and they expect me to use my conscious mental skills to shape these ideas into cohesive music that they (and hopefully other listeners) will find compelling. If I complain that their ideas often cross stylistic borders and are difficult to combine harmoniously, they reply, “Get used to it.”

And I have. Despite my initial intellectual misgivings, within a few years I realized my “muses” (and my inner beasts and daemons) metaphorically represent my deepest aesthetic preferences, and as a result I was composing music I found more compelling. So, to let my unconscious and conscious mental processes work in harmony, I’ve embraced a flexible viewpoint that values both spontaneity and painstaking shaping of details and form.

I find composing this way mysterious and unpredictable, but also exciting and spirited. I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but at least I’ve learned to sense when the interactions between my unconscious and conscious processes seem vibrant.