Spirited 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 ability to surrender to chaos yet not be overwhelmed by it is a hallmark of the creative mind.—Srini Pillay, 20171


dancer-streetphoto credit: Marc von Borstel

When I sit down to compose, calm my mind and listen, musical ideas are usually there, waiting to be heard. I realize connected mental networks produce these ideas, but the process often seems magical, as if someone else were giving me ideas. No wonder notions such as muses and daemons have endured for centuries.

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

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 ignoring my a priori intellectual decisions. They deemed abstract constraints irrelevant. They began making choices based on their spontaneous reactions and a few loose rules of thumb. They felt my reasoning skills should be serving their passions and ideas, not vice versa.

So, they began presenting ideas they found exciting and engaging—mixing musical styles as they pleased. Unmasking their pent-up desires, they pushed me to make my music more direct, immediate, and passionate.

They have behaved that way ever since. They give me musical ideas they find fascinating and expect me to shape these ideas into music they find compelling. If I complain that their ideas sometimes cross stylistic borders and are difficult to combine harmoniously, they reply, “Get used to it.”

And I have.

Lessons Learned

I came to realize my metaphorical muses—my unconscious mental processes—were in touch with my gut-level aesthetic enthusiasms. Paying attention to them pushed me to compose music I found more compelling.

To allow my unconscious and conscious mental processes to work together harmoniously, I embraced a flexible approach that combines spontaneity and painstaking shaping of details and form. I find composing this way mysterious, unpredictable, and endlessly engaging. Although I don’t fully understand how it works, I have learned to sense when the interactions between my unconscious and conscious processes feel vibrant.