The Composition of Music by Anonymous
The Author is a 29-year-old man who has lived almost all of his life in Southern California. A composer and improvisor of avant-garde music, he is months away from completing his doctorate at a well-known university. He has studied and worked with some leading composers and performers, and his music has already received some recognition. We follow him from reflective composition into the melody of life.
I have used marijuana fairly regularly for some 12 years, and have found it to help my creativity and my appreciation of music and art in general. I first tried it as a high school student, but didn’t start using it frequently until college, in the company of good friends in the dorms. I would estimate that in my first two years of college, I smoked, generally, almost daily: the principal exceptions were vacations, which I usually spent at my parent’s home. Although in my junior year I curbed my drug use, I was far from abstemious, smoking on average several times a week from then on, for several years. As an undergraduate I maintained almost straight A’s (getting membership in Phi Beta Kappa and receiving special honors upon graduation) and enjoyed a reputation as a talented and dependable violinist. I say this not to boast, but to underscore that my drug use has had no apparent adverse effect on my work.
Pot at this time was both a social bond for my group of friends, and a means for enhanced experience. My friends and I would spend days or nights together, listening to music, having long and wide-ranging conversations (one friend was an engineering and physics student, and we would often discuss analogies between artistic and scientific perception), and going on expeditions into nature. We were much impressed with the example of the Beat poets, for instance, and similarly sought through drugs a richer and more direct relationship to things. Natural phenomena, like trees or the ocean, had never before revealed their complexity and beauty as fully as they did under the influence of marijuana (or, more intensely still, LSD). Further, music was more potent than before, thanks to the distension of time usual with pot.
Later I used pot less in general social circumstances, and more for specific ends. For example, a good friend of mine was a painter: we would smoke and spend hours studying reproductions of Poussins or Twomblys, figuring out how they worked, the hidden proportions and balances, the beauty of individual details. More importantly, I started using pot in the process of composing, a practice which continues to this day.
I compose very much in layers: first comes some sort of general impression of a piece (instrumentation, rough proportions, length); then a more mechanical phase of deposing “stuff” (pitches, rhythms, shapes) into this schema; and finally, the refinement and alteration of this material for increasingly specific expressive intents. (This is a big simplification, and in practice these levels are becoming increasingly fluid; but I don’t want to get too technical, so I’ll leave this as is.)
Pot can help me a great deal in the first and third of these phases. It helps make my initial impressions more concrete: I can better feel the continuities and conflicts that they can embody, and better visualize general shapes. Although this overview invariably changes a great deal during the working process, I need a vivid image to motivate this work. Pot is not very good for the second phase of composition: the mundane “working out” of the initial vision is best done without the distraction of heightened sensitivity that pot provides. However, pot is very useful in the third phase: I read through my material over and over again, trying to discern its internal energies, revising both the details and my general conception of the piece as I go. Pot can make me much more sensitive in particular to the affect of given gestures or shapes; as in the first phase, I have a more visceral and plastic sense of the music, how it feels to the emotions and the body. This physical impact is very important for me (which is not to be confused with mere force – it may be a thing of great delicacy), and I compose neither at the piano nor with computer aids. Pot improves my imagination of the propulsions and resistances that animate my music.
I like using pot in the composing process (I haven’t used it much as an improviser, but intend to), and also in listening to music, reading, and watching films. Pot can diminish stamina sometimes, perhaps because time distends under its influence, and short events can have the weight of meaning (and consequent capacity to exhaust) that longer ones typically do; but this potential defect is generally offset by exceptionally acute emotional impact and perception of nuance. At the same time, the sensitivity it fosters enhances both my positive and negative “normal” reactions: my fondness for slow music, for jazz, for rich and complex textures, for fusion of expressive and constructive dimensions (e.g., Bruckner, Billie Holiday, Ferneyhough, Schoenberg) flourishes; as does my distaste for motoric pulses, indulgent heroic rhetoric, virtuosity for its own sake (techno, film music, Paganini). With reading, I may not read as much as when I’m not stoned, but I can read more deeply: this is very useful with poetry, in which hitherto ignored layers of resonance and significance can emerge. This is also true of films: good older Hollywood movies and “art films” are improved, while the manipulative entertainments typical now become ludicrous or worse.
I use marijuana because I enjoy such sensitivity, either when working or when perceiving. I like taking long walks through the canyons near my home under its influence, observing the flora, the weather, etc. Walks in the city are also interesting: the undertones of class and power beneath the surface of the environment become more perceptible. Pot can also be useful as a sort of meditation aid: recently, I’ve been experimenting with a sort of self-hypnosis under its influence, trying to listen into hidden parts of the self, the continuity of bodily and emotional memory. I generally smoke between once and four times a week. I have gone without for periods of up to nine months, however, either from lack of access or from self-imposed discipline.
At one difficult period I felt my use was excessive, and, worried, I stopped using for a long time; but I found that my productivity and mood did not improve in its absence. On the contrary, I think pot would have helped me overcome my depression more quickly (my work was at a crossroads and a long-distance relationship was ending); it has certainly helped give me perspective in subsequent disappointments. Pot has definitely affected my general view of life: my best experiences with it remind me of, or deepen my perception of, the beauty, complexity, and interrelation of self, history, and environment.
Incidentally, alcohol is a completely different drug from marijuana. Pot for me is generally not a good social drug: I can become self-conscious and often would prefer to be alone, working on my music or reading or walking, or else only with one or two close friends. Alcohol by contrast can improve ease of social intercourse for me; but it is useless for insight into art or place.