A Composer's Adventures

“You Do It!”


Years ago I got stuck when writing my wind ensemble work Winds of Nagual. I hammered at it for three days and finally jumped up from the drawing board, threw down my pencil and growled, “You do it!” and I stormed out of my studio.

The next day I returned and looked at it. The page in front of me showed movements 8 and 9. That puzzled me, so on a new page I wrote only the eighth movement, which came easily. I had been trying to combine two movements into one, cluttering it up and creating a structural roadblock.

I later recalled my outcry and wondered who I was talking to. After all, my creative problem seemed to have solved itself. What I gradually realized was that in my exasperation I was calling on my unconscious mind to solve the problem—the part I call the Demon. Since then I have included the Demon as a systematic part of not only my composing, but my whole decision-making process.

I just concentrate on an important question and walk away, leaving room for my unconscious to step in. Focusing on any subject — be it a piece of music, an important letter, or a particular thought or feeling — seems to activate the unconscious. But stress and gridlock in the brain can shut down the unconscious, and it only kicks back into gear when you relax or “give in.” The unconscious seems to get distressed that you are losing something valuable and feels compelled to take over.

I remember the old pro-con technique of problem-solving: make two lists that run down the advantages and disadvantages of a particular decision. But that never worked well for me. Good results usually need to bypass logic and delve into emotional elements that may be seeded deeper than we realize, especially in creative work.

My life is easier now that I don’t worry about writer’s block. But if a block occurs, I check whether I have poured enough information and ideas into the project for the Demon to work on. That usually works, because we have more and smarter resources than we know.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Love it! I haven’t had exactly the same experience but similar. Many breakthroughs in science have also come about that way – by saturating the brain with the problem and then ‘letting go’.

    When I ‘work’ at something then it becomes hard and when I ‘play’ it becomes easier.

    Last year I worked on a process called ‘The Artist’s Way’. A 12 week ‘unblocking’ program. One of the tasks is to just write for 1/2 hour every day without censoring what you are writing or worrying about whether it makes sense. Interestingly every once in a while, among the trash that I wrote, were things that were completely new to me, that surprised me and that I found valuable. Indeed, as you say; “we have smarter talents than we know.”

  2. Bruce—I find the conscious and unconscious make a wonderful symbiosis, but sometimes the conscious self tries to “take over” and dominate, forcing the issue, so to speak, and the unconscious temporarily disappears. Then when the conscious finally lets go of its forcible position, the unconscious comes through. It can be tricky and it takes time to learn how to balance the two, because they are both strong personalities each in their own way.

  3. Hi, Michael,

    Given the picture you’ve posted with this blog, I wonder if you were hoping Beethoven would do it? Wouldn’t that have been nice!

    Keep up the good posts.


  4. Adam,

    Well, I’ve filled myself with enough Beethoven that it’s quite possible that a part of him does come forth when I need it. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from him about the linguistics of music—no one gets to the point and sticks to it the way he does.

  5. Re writer’s block, some people don’t realize that in order to be blocked you need to have something to block. That is, you need to ingest enough knowledge and material over the years to call upon when stuck.

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