A Composer's Adventures

Music: A Psychic Experience?

THE RITE OF SPRING by Stravinsky

Dancer Steven McRae with artists of The Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography
of The Rite of Spring. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH

Is music a psychic experience? Stravinsky claimed that The Rite of Spring was already written and that he was simply the medium for it. I think many composers have had that feeling when creating works that are very special to them.

I know that when I feel stuck while writing a work and decide to take a break from it, I can resort to something inside myself to get things rolling again when the time is right. It’s as if I hand over the work to my subconscious. It has often done a much better job than my conscious mind, even though I think that can be pretty creative too by churning out all the possible solutions for a trouble spot. Call it the raw material for the piece. Then I walk away from it and another part of me seems to take over and do the work. I certainly can’t describe the process, but I know it is not intellectual or cerebral. It seems as though some kind of extra-consciousness appears from an almost secret place and invites me to play.

Perhaps all creativity has a psychic component — in art, science and all our daily creative pursuits. Many people resist or ridicule the existence of psychic reality, though there is much evidence that it exists — sometimes under different names, such as intuition, coincidence or luck.

In The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird tested the live plant leaf of a rhododendron with a polygraph to see if it registered emotion. Not only did the leaf register a strong pain response when they dipped one of its leaves in hot coffee, it registered an even higher reading when one of them simply thought about doing it. Did the plant read their minds? And if plants have such powers, why don’t we?

I have never wished for or searched for unexplainable experiences, but a couple have simply happened to me.

One incident was in a workshop, where I demonstrated dancing while balancing an imaginary little white feather on one hand. The group gave me a variety of instructions regarding the feather I was visualizing, shifting it from one palm to the other, imagining how it changed its color, weight and size. Suddenly they told me to stop and close my eyes. They asked me to describe the latest feather on my palm. “It has changed to a large feather in a brilliant purple color,” I said. When I opened my eyes, I saw they had placed a lady’s hat with a long purple feather on the floor in front of me. At that moment I saw a bright image of a newly renovated front porch with a large mirror and a hat rack next to it. When I described it to the group, a woman’s voice called out: ”That’s our new porch where I hang my hat”— meaning the hat that was on the floor.

Years later, I was composing a movement of music called “Ice and Light” in my work Arctic Dreams, which was inspired by a long stay with an Inuit family in Pangnirtung, Baffin Island. I had been concentrating intensely on this movement for several days, trying to capture the sonic effect of changing colors in a moving iceberg as the sun’s rays refracted in it. Then the phone rang and it was Rosie, my Arctic host, who hadn’t written or contacted me since I lived with the family three years earlier. I was thrilled and asked her why she called. She said, “I don’t know—Enukie and I were just sitting here watching an iceberg floating by with all the different colors and I said, ‘Let’s call Michael.’ ”

Some coincidence.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Hmm, dangerous territory here. I tend to ‘be from Missouri’ regarding psychic stuff. I think this is mainly as a result of the arrival of new age mickey mouse science to which I have a severe allergy. My studies in university, where I studied psychology in a strongly behavioral atmosphere, has made me wary. I tend to look for a simple explanation first.

    I really don’t know where my music comes from but it surely is something remarkable and captivates me and many folks. I quite like to think of composition as a craft. It is then demystified but I admit there is no explaining the transporting effect it seems to have on me. Bach can make me swoon yet when you analyze it you can see how logical it is. Amazing that!

    I have had many remarkable experiences, however, and most of these arose by an association with a yogi that I studied with for many years. This man had the ability to take questions from my mind and answer them without me voicing them. These answers were woven into the conversation in such a way that there was no ‘show’ but I was floored when it happened again and again. This was a very important experience for me as I became convinced by this experience that he couldn’t possibly do this unless we were connected by some medium and were therefore not simply physical bodies. The reason it was important is that until I had this experience I could see no reason for living; after all, no matter how successful we are in any aspect of life we must eventually give it up and in the end give up our body and all. But, if we are not confined to the physical there is something beyond and transcendence is a possibility. Actually, I see now that it is quite simple; Can a ‘piece of meat’ communicate? yet we do!

    Once I arrived at his man’s house in a state of abstraction from a startling dream that I had had the previous night. He was talking with some friends when I came in and describing a metaphysical story that had all of the elements of my dream. When I brought up the dream he immediately, without surprise and waiting impatiently for me to finish, started to describe the message that this dream had for me and how important it was. I had so many examples of like this that I just took them for granted.

    As a result of my long association with this man I learned how to ‘read people’. Just for fun I’ll describe it: If you clear your mind then the thoughts that come to you are those that are held by your present company. This works because we are not ‘thinkers’ but share a field of thought traffic and we tend to identify some as our own – big mistake. The big difficulty in doing this is that it is a high art to clear your mind and stop identifying thoughts as yours. Also, if you are successful then you have a moral responsibility not to judge the person you are reading or abuse the info – and, of course, you can be wrong! It is enough just to be able to ‘get a feeling’ of a person or situation and that can be helpful in deciding if the atmosphere is healthy for you or not. Much of this can be explained by visual cues and learned associations so I generally don’t speak of it.

    When musicians play, particularly when they improvise then some wonderful things happen when they tune in or ‘zone’. I think that the reason that I enjoy doing this is because of the sense of vastness or expansion that comes when all the players are successful in building a beautiful sound edifice together – and it is invisible but real…

    • Bruce—Nice thoughts. I agree with the idea of art being a craft. But I think craft is a magnet that attracts signals that might not have come otherwise. Of course there are numerous dreamer-types who wish for psychic revelation because they have no other way of getting revelation. I think the harder you work on creating something, and the more craft you have to realize it with, the more psychic signals you are open to. It’s like having a radio with many extra dials so you can pick up many more programs. And I think a lot of stuff is floating out there to be picked up. But it requires turning off the mental noise that often besieges us from too much information overflow. A shaman in Bali warned me to get my tongue out of the way so the light can come through. When I was overworked from too much mental strain he said that I had “tired tongue.” That humorous image has stuck with me when I overdo it in my creative thought. He showed me a painting he had made of a beam of light coming straight down through a man’s head and igniting the central shakras in his torso. The tongue is stretched out to the side to let the light through. And again I think of e e cummings remark that anyone who analyzes the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.

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