On Marijuana, Musical Creativity, and the Collective Unconscious by "Russell Ambrose"
Russell Ambrose (a pseudonym) is a musician: aged 47, composer, jazzer, conductor, teacher. Time alteration, contact highs, and intensified sensual experiences are discussed, while cannabis is considered as a gateway for access to altered states in a non-drug context.
For generations, turned-on musicians have been arguing with straight musicians about the relationship of drug use to musical creativity. Do drugs make you more creative, or do you just think you are being more creative when you are stoned because you have reduced powers of judgment? Does music really sound better and make more sense when we are stoned, or are our poor little fried brains merely thankful for anything that can cut through the fog? Could all those great artists known historically to have used drugs (such as Hector Berlioz, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, to name a few) have accomplished as much without pharmaceutical reinforcement? This article explores some of the positive impact that my drug of choice, marijuana, has on musical creativity; in particular, it focuses on how marijuana leads us to states of consciousness which enhance our sense of collective identity as human beings.
One thing that all musicians must learn is how to overstep the very literal-minded modes of thought which determine so-called “normal” behavior; it is one thing to carry on a rational conversation about material things with a waitress or an Automatic-Teller, but it is quite another to carry that conversation to a land of archetypal symbols and abstract horizons. In order to derive meaning from music, one must learn to associate musical materials (the tunes, the rhythms, the forms) with super-personal realities – realities for which there are no literally articulated referents. In short, the “normal” terms with which we define ourselves are too restrictive to accommodate the musical state of mind; music requires the literal sense of self to become diffused so that non-definable entities may enter consciousness and register their subtle influence on the intricate interplay of ideas and feelings as they flow beneath the surface of musical events. Everybody likes to climb out of their own skin once in awhile and wander through the shadowy corridors of self; we like to do this because we know that a significant part of our multi-dimensional self lives in those dark hallways as much as in the sun of rational consciousness. The guru says that drugs can take you to God but you cannot stay there; with this we must agree, but in the heyday of 20th century madness the fact that marijuana promotes a paranormal fluidity of ego-definition without years of disciplined meditation seems like a pretty good deal.
Most of us are aware that our sense of self changes in accordance with our moods, and most of us who smoke marijuana know that marijuana allows us to choose from an expanded palette of moods as our attention drifts through various levels of consciousness. The question is: how is music related to these various levels, and what does marijuana offer us, when we create or listen to music, that is not available to us when we are in the more normal, fixed ego state?
As a creative artist, I have written an enormous amount of music stoned, and an enormous amount of music not stoned. I feel that, in terms of quality, these two creative modes are basically the same – one type of music is equally as good, well-made, expressive, as the other. However, there can be no doubt that, comparatively, the two modes focus on very different subject matter: I have found that my straight music tends to confine itself to specific stylistic domains, exploring the literal connections between original musical materials, and developing a high level of integral relationship between the parts; my stoned music more readily accepts as viable musical materials and expressions borrowed from a wider variety of musical idioms, expanding the stylistic boundaries of the music to encompass a broader range of possibilities within a single context. In other words, my stoned music accesses more of my total musical memory to solve musical problems, while my straight music is content to search for answers within a more restricted jurisdiction.
It is important to remember that it takes all kinds to make a world. I am not proposing that music composers and music listeners should be stoned all the time, any more than I would suggest that people go about their daily business in a transcendental consciousness state. There is a place in the vast cosmic scheme for the kind of tidy self-involved musical expressions which emanate from a fixed ego-definition just as there is a place for alarm clocks; this is not necessarily a question of good vs. better. I do want to emphasize, however, that the universe is very large and the more accepting we are of different phases of reality the more we will get out of life.
To get more into it, let us look at some of the specific ways marijuana affects the way we listen to music:
1) One of the effects of marijuana on musical perception has to do with how our time sense is altered: in general, when we are stoned, we experience time as slowed down. I’m not sure, but I think this means that our thinking is sped up, perhaps because the diffused ego, becoming one with the corporate mind of the collective unconscious, is freed from the physical limitations of the individual’s physical brain. With our sense of time slowed down during a stoned audition, musical events seem to pass by at a much more leisurely rate, giving us a chance to notice all sorts of details which we missed during a straight audition. There is also a higher level of integration of these details into an holistic musical identity which resonates with deeper human significance. Many times I will write something in straight mode which I cannot really understand until I hear it stoned; somehow the stoned mind state can take in material that can barely scratch the surface of literal consciousness. All the physical senses are aroused by marijuana such that the experience of all the sensual aspects of music is enhanced – the formal or rhythmic sensation, neuro-motor responses, and, particularly, the sensitivity to sound quality.
2) Of course, it goes without saying that the collective artifacts in a piece of music are imbued with an archetypal resonance; but during the drug experience, especially since time is decelerated, the subject is allowed to respond on a deeper level to the archetypes, and, furthermore, to make literal connections between the symbols and abstract philosophical or religious issues. The drug experience of music, therefore, may potentially reveal the primal mysteries, hidden in the music, to the listener’s regressed mind.
3) One of marijuana’s main attractions is its ability to intensify sensual experiences; things taste better, sound better, sex is great, and so on. Don’t forget, however, that the collective consciousness has a profoundly physical corollary, maybe not in the mind state itself, but certainly in the way the collective symbols resonate in the body. The hypnotic, tribal throb of music deep down in our guts communicates something to our bodies that is preliterate but highly significant, human, and very real.
4) Speaking of tribal consciousness, consider the phenomenon of the so-called “contact high.” Most of us smokers have had the experience of walking into a room full of stoned people and sharing in their high even without actually imbibing. Perhaps the mind state induced by marijuana actually has the ability to cross personal boundaries and evoke sympathetic mental vibrations in receptive subjects. Those of us old-timers may remember L.A.’s Fox Theater in its heyday, when we could go to movies and find somebody in every row who was passing around a joint. Even if you didn’t get any (which was pretty impossible unless you were wearing a gas mask) those were great movies! Does this effect of marijuana on groups of people tell us anything about the function of audiences in the contemplation of collective artifacts?
5) Of course, another way of saying “fluid ego-definition” is “reduced inhibition.” The main reason people become addicted to any drug (especially alcohol) is that it helps them free themselves from habitual personal inhibitions they can’t shake without a little help from their friends. These inhibitions can take the form of socialized behavior, the release from which often results in anti-social behavior; but an inhibition can also take the form of a conventionalized mode of thought. It was from these thought conventions that people like Ken Kesey’s Pranksters and Timothy Leary sought to liberate themselves in the 60’s. Perhaps the way marijuana makes memories available, which the personality usually keeps locked away, is the most obvious advantage of the regressed mind state. Certainly that strain of perfectionism, which is so often a characteristic of the artistic temperament, is seriously compromised by marijuana use, and the flood of disassociated memories which flood the stoner’s mind represent a wealth of significant psychic material. The problem is that short-term memory is so impaired it is easy to immediately forget what you just remembered unless you pay close attention.
Important questions to ask are: how much is drug use a crutch? How much does the quick fix atrophy our internal powers of will? Does the use of a drug to induce a psychological state turn into a self-limiting barrier between the self and even higher mental states?
It may be true, as the doctors and the gurus say, that the drug experience tends to become less and less potent after awhile, as it takes more and more to get the mind to the same regressed state (this is why all these politicians say that marijuana leads to harder drugs). I, however, have smoked marijuana on and off for twenty-five years, and I can still get the benefits I want from it. As a religious person, I know the chance I am taking using a short-cut to God, but I feel that the drug experience can be thought of as a first step toward an experience which my will-power can bolster and push on to higher mental states when necessary, but which can remain a mere recreational experience when such is required.
Every crutch you use may weaken the will, if the will is allowed to atrophy. However, in our present scurrilous age, when the ego must constantly bolster itself with new forms of hyper-rigidity in order to withstand the onslaughts of technocratized socialization, it is a welcome relief to have a tool like marijuana which can ease us back to a more natural mind state which invites wholesome creative impulses and feelings of belonging to a larger world.