Seeking Inspiration: Exploring the Composer’s Liminal Space

Seeking Inspiration: Exploring the Composer’s Liminal Space

“I … force it, banging my head with a hammer until something comes out”. So says Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams about the art of composing, the art being the process through which, after years of practice and study, the composer uses the acquired skills, techniques and experience to turn a few ideas for themes and forms into a completed piece of music. “It’s a cliché but it’s true: writing music is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration” (Michael J. Stewart). But what about that one per cent, the moment of inspiration when a tune or an idea first appears? HGW again: “I write at a grand piano [and] record everything that I do, because frequently during inspirational moments I’ll hit on something, I don’t want to stop playing, and ten minutes later I’ll be wondering what the hell I played”. (1) He is referring to the experience, which I believe to be common to all composers, where all sense of time and space recedes, and the mind is transported to a realm of thought and feeling that finds its expression in music. (2) This describes what I would term the composer’s ‘liminal space’, an altered state of consciousness (ASC) characterised not only by a distortion in the perception of time and place, but also by the interplay of emotions, by the rush of adrenalin, by the supremacy of instinct and intuition and by the temporary dislocation,  transformation or even absence of language and the conscious mind, which allows access to the infinite, to symbolic thought, to a place where mind, body and soul can communicate without words or barriers or inhibitions.

Defined as a sensory threshold (from the Latin noun “limen”), this liminal space could be represented as a room with an infinite number of doors that open to every place, a creative nexus of the conscious and subconscious where everything becomes possible. It has the properties of a fractal, lying between states (of consciousness) and serving as an interface or boundary zone, connecting or separating multiple levels (of thought, imagination and emotion), recursive, self-similar and containing infinite detail. In this sense it is universally replicated, it’s form to be found in the lungs, the brain and the skin, in the spiral of cream when poured into coffee and the spiral arrangement of the stars in a distant galaxy, in coastlines and hurricanes – in short, just about everywhere. Therefore, there is not necessarily anything mystical about either the space or related, liminal experiences. Clearly, the human being is able to bypass conscious thought to perform a voluntary action almost at will. For example, if someone tosses a ball for the average person to catch, in an instant their brain will process all the information required to just reach out and catch it, without having consciously to think about vectors, angles, wind speed or velocities. Their brain draws upon prior experiences of catching a ball, and guides the hand to the right place; the more practiced at catching a person is, the more likely they are to be consistently accurate and less likely to drop the ball. Similarly, it is possible to undertake absent-minded ‘distracted action’, like walking while engrossed in conversation, or driving for long distances whilst engrossed in a radio programme. This leads me to the personal belief that the more ‘trips’ that a composer takes to their personal liminal space, the easier it becomes to ‘navigate’ and thereby to find inspiration, although I acknowledge that this view is not universally shared.

Musicians have historically been very inventive in their efforts to stimulate creativity. In this context, the use of alcohol or drugs to induce an altered state of consciousness is well documented. For example, a brief trawl round the Internet will show that it is popularly believed that the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a reference to the creative benefits offered by the hallucinogenic drug LSD (however, aside from an oblique reference by Paul McCartney, I was unable to find any hard evidence to support this supposition). Although the use of LSD is outside of my personal experience, users have reported that one effect of the drug is to emphasise the essence of things, e.g. the ‘yellowness’ of the colour yellow, or the ‘chair-ishness’ of a chair, to the point that these characteristics attain a universal significance, seeming to reveal a fundamental condition of existence that transcends the mundane. This quality recalls the experience of ‘travelling’ into liminal space, where inhibition disappears but the senses are enhanced, providing a point of view outside everyday knowledge and understanding where the composer can suddenly see, feel, realise and absorb (or inspire?) for example the understanding that all the tragedies of the world can be contained within and expressed by a particular chord or sequence of notes, or as William Blake put it, “The world in a grain of sand…eternity in an hour”. (3)

Improvisation is certainly a more common (and safer!) route to musical inspiration, though for those who are not absolute masters of their instrument, the subconscious phenomenon of ‘muscular memory’ can interfere with the free flow of ideas, causing hands and fingers to recreate familiar shapes and patterns on the keyboard or frets implanted from years of practice and habit. Perhaps paradoxically, and particularly in this instance, the use of a framework or structure – a holding form - can free the music maker to explore new territory. The holding form itself can be anything, limited only by imagination; it could be a rhythm, a fragment of melody, even an image or a story. The use is surprisingly widespread. J.S. Bach used his name expressed in German music notation (Bb, A, C, B) as the basis for at least one piece of music; Stravinsky also used the  same four notes in a piece as a homage to Bach. (4) Although I would hesitate to suggest that either of these luminaries needed an artificial device to kick start their creativity (even on an ‘off day’!), it’s fair to present these as possible examples of a holding form utilised as a jumping off point at which to create an original composition. In my experience, even a free improvisation session (i.e. with no pre-determined holding form) will usually produce patterns, calls and responses, repetitions and variations. It may be, then, that form (order) is a fundamental component of the improvisation experience (chaos). Chaos theory suggests that order and chaos are intertwined and inseparable, each arising from the other. Order can be seen to arise from chaos; with the holding form order can be used to develop chaos, from which further order can arise. The idea that complexity arises from simplicity is effectively the evolutionary concept, which has many parallels. For example, computer programming at its simplest could be explained as putting two figures into an equation, testing the result, feeding the answer back in and repeating the cycle.

For the composer then, improvisation can provide a reliable route to a liminal space, or ASC, where inspiration can be found and musical order can be derived from chaos. But is inspiration an irrational state of mind? My own attempts to describe the experience (at the end of the opening paragraph of this essay) could have been lifted straight from “Pseud’s Corner” in Private Eye magazine. It certainly fits well with the cartoon depiction of the mad scientist or composer, surfing on a wave of inspiration, oblivious to the niceties of everyday life and the incredulity of onlookers. Clara Schumann’s harrowing account of Robert Schumann’s descent into madness, (5) involving visions of angels and demons who sang to him and comprising moments of fear interspersed with moments of rapturous clarity, could be interpreted as an extreme episode where, as Dr June Boyce-Tillman, Professor of Music at University College, Winchester phrased it: “...processes that had served him well in composition [were] now out of control”. (6) Perhaps certain people are predisposed to this type of experience: "Prophets and artists tend to be liminal and marginal people, 'edgemen' who strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the clichés associated with status incumbency and role-playing and to enter into vital relations with other men in fact or imagination." (Anthropologist Victor Turner, Liminality and Communitas). A ‘normal’ state of mind (insofar as such a condition exists!) could be described as relatively calm, with order prevailing against a low-level background of chaotic noise (the ‘noise’ being a necessary defense mechanism that allows us to respond rapidly to stimuli). However, we all have the potential to develop psychological illness, to confuse internal and external realities and suffer hallucination or delusion, so one criterion for psychological health would surely be the ability to recognise the chaos inside us, but to tolerate and live in harmony with it. When we lose that ability, we become ‘dis- eased’, ill at ease with the chaos in our minds. And perhaps during moments of inspiration, we wilfully enter into and utilise the chaos, using our personal fractal boundaries as stepping stones and launchpads that allow us to travel freely in this liminal space and use the raw materials of our experiences, knowledge and emotions to create new music, new art and new truths. Some may find this uncomfortable: after all, abandoning one’s everyday mindset in this way can be seen as losing control. To submit to one’s imagination and let it have free rein is almost to invite possession, like welcoming in the gods and letting them loose to do as they will.

Composer John Cage took a slightly prosaic view of achieving inspiration: “If you don’t know what to do next, do something boring and ideas will flock to you like birds”. However, in the Platonic dialogue Ion, Socrates suggests that the author of a work is not the source but rather the medium through which the Muse operates: ‘For your skillful recitation of Homer is not an art, as you just claimed, but a divine force which moves you, just as in that type of stone which Euripides called a "Magnet", but most people know as a "Heracleian". And indeed these stones do not only attract rings and pieces of iron, but then convey this same ability to the rings so that they can in turn do the same thing which the stone does, to attract other rings, so that sometimes a great chain entirely of iron and rings is formed from the others. This power is thus conveyed to the others from just that one stone. In just this way does the Muse place her inspiration, and a chain is formed from the inspirations of the other  ones who are inspired. For all of the poets of epics take virtue not from their skill but, because they are inspired and possessed, compose all of these great poems, and the lyric poets just the same, just as the Corybantic dancers dance when they are no longer within their right minds, so do the lyric poets, no longer within their right minds, make their beautiful  songs...(Ion 533d1-534a2). The inspired man is ‘ouk emphrenes’ (‘not in his mind’), possessed by divine inspiration. The composer John Tavener agrees: “I don't believe that any music which is prefabricated by humans exists at all. This is not an eccentric point of view – it's the view of the Church Fathers. Any idea that is worked out in a human way does not exist. So that would distance me totally from all Scholastic theology: the whole  Western idea of man-made techniques, like sonata form, fugue, canon – useless... unless, of course, it's performing a metaphysical function”.

This brings me to the origin of the word and concept of ‘inspiration’. The Greek θεοπνευστος (theopneustos), literally ‘God- breathed’, was translated into Latin for the Vulgate bible as divinitus inspirata, literally ‘divinely breathed into’. (That we nowadays often infer from the word inspired the meaning ‘breathed in’ is because of its association with the medical term respiration, which itself is derived from the Latin respirare, literally ‘again to breathe’). If we say we are inspired we are acknowledging to some degree that we have ‘breathed in’ something ‘divine’, or at least that we are operating on a higher plane in conjunction with a definite force which may be hard to define but is easy to recognise. Given the association of its antonym ‘expired’ with death, to be inspired is clearly both life enhancing and life affirming, affecting body and mind alike. No wonder that inspiration leads to creativity, and that artists will often describe the production of their work in terms of conception, gestation and birth. Psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips even draws a parallel with sex, describing inspiration as a loss of control: “For non-believers, inspiration is more like sexual desire than anything else; a fascination, a fear, and something we think of as having a secret solitary pleasure attached to it”. (7) For us humans, creation is possibly the closest we can get to a divine experience, particularly in the creation of a new life. This is arguably the strongest of all desires, possibly the primary purpose of all life.

Music has a long association with religion, and can certainly produce feelings of spirituality in performers and listeners alike, but whether music is an inherently spiritual or mystical phenomenon is obviously open to debate. The act of a composer writing with inspiration, “where the composer’s inspiration collides with his learned technique” was described by Jonathan Harvey as “an archetypal encounter of external and internal, of ‘life’ and ‘art’”. (8) If a composer is inspired in some way, the inspiration will, it is hoped, be felt and shared by all involved in the resultant piece of music. But there are at least three fundamental elements of the musical experience that need to be considered. The composer can write, successfully or otherwise, with the intention of communicating a deeply felt spiritual emotion or idea. The performer(s) might or might not engage with the concept, and might or might not be able to convey it, to an audience that might or might not be receptive. For example, issues of culture can arise; value systems can affect the music and interfere in a number of ways. It’s not possible, then, to consider music as an effective system for the transmission of ideas, however lofty. Music is not a fully abstract art; it produces physical, mental and emotional responses at every stage of its existence, but it is that very quality that makes it so universally powerful. Globally, there are many concepts of the divine, but each god draws on the common human experience – our shared ‘repertoire’ of feelings - for its expression, so a piece of inspired music, with its power to lift the spirits, move the body and stir the soul, would surely be the truest and most accessible ‘stairway to heaven’.

There is a story that apparently originated in the Amazon that is said to have been derived from knowledge imparted by use of the hallucinogen Ayahuasca:

God wanted to hide his secrets in a secure place. ‘Should I put them on the moon?’ He wondered. ‘But if I do, human beings could one day get there, and it could be that those travellers would not be worthy of the secret knowledge. Or perhaps I should hide them in the depths of the ocean,’ He continued. But, again, for the same reason, he dismissed it. Then the solution occurred to Him. ‘I shall put my secrets in the inner sanctum of man’s own mind. Then only the really deserving will be able to reach them.’

Perhaps inspiration is divine. Perhaps it reflects a desire to get closer to God. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of our ongoing need to create, and keep creating. Perhaps it offers escape from death and a route to immortality. Whatever inspiration is, if we look then we will find it, and if we serve it well then it will reward us. If inspiration strikes like lightning, then surely the best place to be is in the middle of the storm!

Paul Johnson Rogers, March 2006

  1. I am unable accurately to attribute the quotes from HGW and MJS; they may be paraphrased and are likely derived from my own many conversations with the two composers about the art of composing and the nature of inspiration
  2. Undoubtedly, the experience is not unique to composers. The term ‘flow’ is used by medical scientists and loosely describes the sensation of becoming ‘lost’ in a pleasurable activity to the point that one loses track of time (see also Csikszentmihalyi M. and Csikszentmihalyi I.S. 1988).
  3. From the poem: Auguries of Innocence
  4. 'Crypto-musicologists’ delight in uncovering similar examples, many of which are tortuous and bizarre attempts to include perhaps the name of a patron, lover or composer in a musical work.
  5. Quoted in Godwin, Joscelyn, (1987) Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, London: Arkana
  6. Music as Spiritual Experience, 20047. Article: Divine Inspiration, published in The Observer, 12 March 2006.
  7. Music and Inspiration, London: Faber and Faber (1999)


Papers and Journals
The Observer in the Observed: Fractal Dynamics of Re-entry, Terry Marks-Tarlow, California, 2002.
Fractal Dynamics of the Psyche, Terry Marks-Tarlow, California, 2005.
The Emergence of Archetypes in Present-Day Science and Its Significance for a Contemporary Philosophy of Nature, Charles R. Card, Victoria, B.C., Canada, 1996.
Music as Spiritual Experience, Dr June Boyce-Tillman (Keynote address for Alister Hardy/MCU conference: “The God experience – who has it and why?”) July 2004
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No. 2, 2001, (The Divine Within, Benny Shanon)
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 11, 2003, (Being All That We Can Be, Josh Weisberg)

Music and Inspiration, Jonathan Harvey, London: Faber and Faber (1999)
Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, Joscelyn Godwin, London: Arkana (1987)
Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Substances, Huston Smith, Putnam, New York, 2000
Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Thomas Metzinger, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003

Further Background Reading
Music Therapy Today Vol. VI (3) July 2005 (Music as a possibility of chance – healing metaphors in music, Kimmo Lehtonen)
The Sequence of Archetypes in Individuation, James Whitlark, Texas, 2005
Dreams, the Placebo Effect and Creative Consciousness, Graywolf Swinney, Asklepia Publications, 1997

The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach, c.1742