Taming the Demons of Creativity

Michael Colgrass
Michael Colgrass

Musical creativity has intrigued writers, critics, and musicologists for centuries. How do composers write music? Are they endowed with a divine gift or is creating a symphony a skill that certain people have been willing to put in the time and effort to acquire?

I have never heard a satisfactory answer to these questions, but as a composer I do know there is much about the process of writing a piece of music that can be understood.

I recently had an interesting query from a listener who asked:

What is the greatest obstacle you must overcome every time you start the composition of a new piece of music? Is it mental, physical, legal, or perhaps political?

I pondered this complex question for days and it took me down so many avenues of thought that are rarely discussed.

MENTAL: First, let me say I don’t see composing as an obstacle, but rather as an exciting opportunity to discover something. I only start a new piece when—having a commission in place from a specific performer or performing organization—I get an idea that excites and intrigues me. I might be inspired by a book or a photograph, or by another piece of music, but often I get my best ideas from the personality of the person or organization I am writing the piece of music for.

Before starting a piece for a soloist I will ask many basic questions about how he or she relates to the instrument. For example: What do you love most about your instrument? What music do you most love to play? What would you say is your strongest characteristic as a player, the one you feel most confident about? If you could write music, what kind of piece would you write for yourself? I could ask this question of 100 different violinists and each of them would give me a different answer. Not only their replies, but a subtle change of voice tone, a facial expression, a gesture, will tell me something on a deeper level about a person’s individual nature as a musician. From this interchange I will often get a feeling, which translates into a musical idea that seems to fit uniquely to that person. Sometimes I will even hear a melody or motif that seems to come from the very core of their psyche.

Once I have that feeling of the person’s nature—which will remain the creative fuel for the whole work—I usually begin to hear a melody or musical fragment or texture that was somehow stimulated by that person or organization. I will work and re-work that simple piece of musical material endlessly—it may be only a few bars long—varying it, turning it upside down, hammering at it until I think I have found in it the kernel from which the piece can grow. Then I put that piece of material, and the many pages of re-writes I have made, into a drawer and forget about it for a week or two. This is my way of letting my unconscious mind go to work on it, which I know it will do. When I stir my brain by hammering hard on a piece of core musical material for an extended period of time, I know my unconscious will take this material very seriously and consider it a project, realizing it is important to me—more important than anything else currently on my mind. Then I go about my daily routine and wait for the returns to start coming in, which might begin at any time in the following weeks. I could be taking a walk, or conversing with friends, or playing with our cat, when the playback from my unconscious starts to surface. I will begin to hear whole chunks of music and will start writing them down. I will edit and re-write these phrases and sections of music, but I won’t force the material to go my way. Instead I try to feel what this musical material wants, what seems to be the most natural thing for it to do, almost as if it were an entity with a will of its own. If I try to force my will on this musical material I know the results will not be as rich.

When I work this way I don’t have any “writer’s block.” In fact, writer’s block is foreign to me. My problem, if you want to call it that, is the opposite. I need to turn off my creative mind once it gets started on this track so I can get some rest. I find that light reading or going to a movie is the best way to divert my mind from creative thought. If I read poetry or a novel of depth or see a stimulating play or art exhibition, my mind seems to say, “Oh, you want us to go there again. Okay. Here’s another idea!”

PHYSICAL: I do believe the body plays a part in my creative process, but I don’t know exactly how, except to say that I would argue that the vestibular system is involved. The vestibular organ is in the inner ear and directs the function of the five senses. This organ accounts for our sense of balance, space, and distance. When it is in good operating condition the other senses function at optimum. When the liquid in the inner ear is disturbed, caused perhaps by too much alcohol or spinning your body around, you may be unable to walk through a doorway without bumping into the doorframe. The vestibular coordinates your vision and your body’s movement through the door. So the vestibular has to be kept in top condition, because it integrates the five senses and gives you greater access to all the capabilities the senses can contribute to the creative process.

I think some form of physical exercise is the primary method of maintaining the vestibular in top working order. Music is all about balancing sound, hearing the relationship between pitches, the degree of space between them, and the degree of space between performers. Yoga, Tai Chi, dancing, distance swimming—any form of body movement that systematically stretches the muscles and increases the blood circulation while at the same time requiring exquisite concentration of physical balance—is excellent for helping develop and maintain the vestibular organ. Cardio-vascular exercise—aerobics, tennis, walking, etc.—is helpful for general health and should be part of any creative person’s life, but such exercise is more directly physical than psychological. Movement that enhances balance actually tunes the vestibular system and establishes an almost endless flow of energy, which stimulates creativity. Creativity requires more high energy than any other activity I have ever experienced. I believe that one reason for writer’s block is a poorly functioning vestibular system, with resulting tiredness of body and mind.

LEGAL: I have an agreement with myself that I only start a new composition when the “business manager” part of me has seen a completed contract with all the details in place. When my creative part is confident that the commissioning person or organization is serious about receiving the music, I will immediately get to work on it. In fact, the coordination between my creative self and my business self has become so successful that my creative part is almost unstoppable once the legal agreement is completed.

A contract also gives me a deadline, and my creative part loves deadlines because it means someone cares enough to make demands on me. Some people often feel time limits are restrictive and will say that creativity can’t be rushed (which is why we tend to excuse an artist for being late on a project). But necessity is often the mother of creativity. On the day of the premiere of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, the overture was not finished yet. The exasperated producer locked the composer in a room and told him he couldn’t come out until he had written the music. As pages came out from under the door the producer handed spaghetti over the transom, and by evening he had his overture.

Personally, I find deadlines inspiring. When I see an announcement in the press that I will be writing a piece of music to be premiered on a certain date, a piece I haven’t even started to compose, my heart jumps and my brain starts whirling with energy. This is real! I can almost feel a two-way energy between myself and the performer—and consequently the listener—as if the creation were now unstoppable.

POLITICAL: If I think about politics in any form, or try to write a piece that might represent a political stance, my work is weakened. The unconscious is totally unconcerned about anything political. In fact, the unconscious has desires and motives of its own that we may rarely understand. When a piece of music is composed for a political purpose— like Beethoven‘s awful “battle symphony” to commemorate Wellington’s victory—the aesthetic result will seldom match the political ardor. Political motivation is conscious, and the conscious mind is usually too limited by itself to create anything of lasting value. I know that if I think politically—try to write a rousing composition “to help align Palestine with Arab nations,” for example—the work would be filled with extraneous material, created largely by superficial reasoning and overstated emotion, and bypassing my unconscious intuitions that are the wellspring of creativity.

This point also applies to composers writing for their colleagues in prescribed musical styles. As in political composing, some composers write music to conform to beliefs and presuppositions about what music is supposed to be, depending on which “party” they want to join: The Tonalists, The Atonalists, The Ecleticists, The Neo-Romanticists, The Minimalists, etc. The chosen style of music can affect a composer’s position at a university, and most composers make their living as teachers. Under these circumstances, the creative motivation becomes more political, demonstrating where a composer chooses to stand in the musical political arena. But the resulting music may have little to do with the magic of genuine creativity.

When I showed a draft of this article to a friend she said, “How about the spiritual?” I was puzzled by her remark, because the spiritual I take for granted. The Balinese have no word for art, because art is created daily by everyone. To me, the spiritual is built into the very purpose of composing. I am writing music for musicians that I hope enables them to express their very being. As I create the music, I am responding deeply to someone else and feeling a deep relationship with them through some kind of unexplained connecting power. The process is almost a form of prayer, so the word spirituality becomes redundant.

Having said all this, there is one underlying potential obstacle for any composer undertaking to write music as a dedicated way of life. Human creative energy in its rawest form, which is the form of creative power that most dedicated artists cultivate, is extremely powerful. Like any fundamental power of nature it can be potentially dangerous. The deeper one goes into the creative self, the more energy of a very fundamental type is stirred. Over a period of time an almost separate creative self can begin to develop, which can begin to make demands on the body and mind it lives in. My wife put it well when once asked in an interview what it was like to live with a composer: “It’s like living with two people,” she said. “There’s Michael, whom I enjoy living with, then there’s this other being that you also learn to live with.”

I affectionately call that “other being” the Demon—not the evil definition of the word, but rather the Greek daemon, which is the word for divine power or life force. Cultivating this creative power in yourself is an exhilarating experience, but it can also be very taxing. The Demon is tireless, relentless, even ruthless, concerned with nothing but exercising its own energy. And this is wonderful, as long as you manage to harness the energy and incorporate it into your life in a balanced way. If you don’t, it can wipe the floor with you—burn you out, make you forget to eat or sleep, and generally affect your physical and mental health. History shows numerous examples of artists going off the deep end, drinking heavily, using drugs. Painter Vincent van Gogh climbed a tree to shoot himself, and composer Robert Schumann ended his life in an insane asylum. As an artist, I need to access the deepest part of myself, allowing the Demon to possess me fully, and then get back out again. This requires establishing a lifeline—like a rope tied to your waist when going into a cave—so I can find my way back to my normal everyday state of mind.

I’m talking here about the fully committed-to-creativity-for-a-lifetime composer and artist, not the people who enjoy creating in their spare time. The Demon requires commitment. If you create erratically and put other work before your creative work, the Demon will get restless, bored, and finally leave. That’s the infamous writer’s block. But when you make creativity the centerpiece of your life, then the Demon will work for you tirelessly night and day.

To make a home for my Demon, I have carefully taken the time to define all the basic activities and functions of my life—social, business, health, family, finances, etc.—and monitor how they all relate to and fit in with my creative work. This self-organization took a lot of experimenting in order to create a life where I could compose and also be an agreeable person to live with and enjoy life outside of composing. Maintaining this balance is ongoing work. But as I learned how these different parts of myself relate to and help each other, I learned also how to create a home for the Demon that everybody inside and outside of me can live with. My balanced life style allows me to harbor this awesome power and also enjoy a normal family life.

When I described this process of making a home inside myself for the Demon to a group of Neuro-Linguistic Programmers in California who were modeling me for creativity, I mentioned that I have an agreement with this all-encompassing force that, when I stop working at night for supper, the Demon goes back to wherever it goes at night and will not bother me again until morning. One of the people present asked, “When you put your demon in the cage at night…” and John Grinder, co-founder of NLP and the host of the workshop, interrupted him and said, “Whoa, make no mistake—this man’s demon has a penthouse!”