Music and the Spirit of Creativity

My musical saga began at the age of ten. I had heard and was moved by music all my life, that which I heard outside and inside my head. While taking piano lessons I found that when it came time to practice, what I heard inside of my own mind demanded an outlet more than learning "Mary Had A Little Lamb." The teacher quickly tired of my rebellious approach and, after making a sad phone call to my parents, dismissed me for the sin of having no talent. I thought of that piano teacher as I performed one of my original compositions at New York’s Lincoln Center in the summer of 1993. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember the angry red marks all over my piano book from the day she exploded in anger and frustration at my unwillingness to play other than what I heard internally.

Original music has always been the focal point of my experience, and I have thought long and hard on where it comes from, since the early ’60s when I first began experimenting with it. It’s an eternal mystery.

Fortunately, a few years after the piano debacle, I found a teacher who was willing to show me the rudiments of playing the guitar, and my parents were willing to give me a second chance. That was in 1962, and I have played ever since. For lack of a better description, I am considered a jazz guitarist. Why jazz? After having studied and played classical guitar, rock, folk music, north Indian classical music, and jazz forms such as swing, bebop, fusion, Latin, and free jazz, there is only one form that allows the inclusion of all those elements and that is "Jazz"—I suppose we had better give it a capital "J"if it has to encompass all of that.

I strongly dislike having to apply names to these things because they all come from a vast universe of musical experience. Everything influences everything else, and there is conceptual drift in most areas. So why the boundaries? Why the definitions? They are all just words, but words are all we have, as the song goes, to say "I love you" and to describe things like music. Debussy, the French impressionist composer, had his influence on jazz. The blues form is the backbone of most jazz, rock, and country music. It’s a wonderful reflection of our cultural heritage, a sharing of ideas from different races, ethnic backgrounds, and time periods. Classical music in its early forms has had a strong influence on rock music. I can’t begin to tell you how many folk and pop songs I have heard that are based on the harmonic movement in Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

In my early years of playing music, an original composition seemed to come out of the blue, purely by accident. After months of playing the music of others, rehearsing it, performing it, and later analyzing it, I would pick up my instrument and suddenly something new would be born. It was a pure joy when it occurred. The only problem was it didn’t occur enough for my liking. It was as if the goose had laid a golden egg and I would then ask, "Now where are the other eleven?" I needed more, but they wouldn’t appear on demand.

Sometime around 1971 I went to a talk by a regionally known yogi, whose name I don’t remember. He talked about the spiritual and physical discipline of yoga, and at the end he briefly led us through a meditation. During the talk he reiterated that meditation is a state that cannot be adequately described with words. He used the analogy that there is no way to experience the taste of a peach without actually tasting it. And the same is true of meditation. There is no way to describe it. I was profoundly moved by his gentle guidance through the meditation process and by the process itself. I went home and picked up my instrument, and about three new compositional ideas made themselves apparent that night. More than in the last three months combined! I knew then what I had to do.

I must admit, I didn’t come to yoga or meditation for spiritual reasons. I wanted to be healthy, smarter, clearer, and more creative in productive ways. However, as I began to practice meditation on a regular basis, the spiritual benefits came to me uninvited. I realized for example that to be clear and productive, one has to be honest and free of anger, hatred, resentment, and intolerance. One has to be forgiving, free of grudges, and in love with life and the world.

A natural sense of wonder seemed to be freed in me during that period. I noticed things in a way I never had before. The beauty of my surroundings, the trees, the sky, the way sunlight changed the colors of buildings and walls in my room. All these things were stimuli that found an expression through my music. My creative skills seemed to increase geometrically. Now the creative ideas were flowing so fast that I could scarcely get them down. This continued for months after my introduction to and practice of yoga and meditation. And then suddenly and without warning, it all stopped. I felt blocked and frustrated again.

What went wrong? I thought with certainty that I had tapped into a bottomless well of new and free musical and poetic ideas. Where did that vanish to? I was still meditating, practicing physical forms of yoga, and working with my instrument, but I could barely do anything more than repeat myself. My career path seemed uncertain, I had been sure that creative and musical pursuits were how I would make my living, but now I became confused.

Looking back on that first experience of a huge creative surge and then the subsiding of that surge, I now realize it was perfectly natural. It was nothing more than yin-yang, day-night, one breathes in, one breathes out. Those first meditation sessions opened the floodgates for me. I was able to release my version of the things I had been practicing, studying, and listening to up to that point. When they were all outside of me, down on paper or on tape, I was empty. There was nothing left to say.

Without knowing how the cycle was unfolding, I moved to new musical studies. I found Indian music through the luck of having a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lalmani Misra, dean of the Hindu University in Varanasi, India, was my instructor. For several years, I studied and took in new scales, concepts, and compositions.

Simultaneously I was studying jazz and learning new chords, theory, and scale patterns. Before long, the original ideas were flowing again, and then I understood how the creative cycle works. You breathe in, then you breathe out. First you learn, then you teach. Your teaching could be actual teaching in a classroom, which I have done. Or your teaching takes an art form, writing, or painting. First you receive by studying, then you give by producing something or teaching. Breathing in, breathing out.

The Best Ideas

At many colleges and universities around the world, musical composition is taught. Formulaic writing is used to illustrate how to compose using counterpoint, three part writing, as well as imitating various forms such as fugue, classical form (the theme is revealed, developed, and then revisited), etc. It’s important to have the discipline to be able to reproduce a form, to capture an idea and force it into a mold. This process is a way to become adept at a craft.

I have experienced myself and have read about composers who say that the best ideas come from somewhere other than the intellectual part of the mind. "The song writes itself," I have heard it said. The song just appears as if it already existed, and I am simply the one who transcribes it or plays it spontaneously.

I once went out on a summer Philadelphia night and walked nearly to the bottom of School House Lane, one of the prettiest streets in the city. There seemed to be a sweet presence in the air that night. I remember stopping at one point to look up at the stars, and I heard the most beautiful melody, better than anything I could ever have thought up consciously. I hurried home before I could forget it, and wrote it down. I called it "Celeste." Where did it come from? Can we really know? Was it a composite of all that I had heard before? Or was it some higher-level thought or language manifest in music that made itself apparent? It seemed magical, nothing that I could have forced out by following a formula.

Sometime in the early 1980s I wandered into Green Street Meeting in the historic Germantown section of Philadelphia. I had attended one or two other meetings before, but the warmth of this one was particularly appealing to me. I returned once or twice and felt that something special was happening there, so attending became more of a habit as the years went on. I had a chance to meditate, to quiet my mind, and at the same time be surrounded by people who were doing very much the same thing. When people occasionally would rise and speak, it seemed that the silence and simplicity of the room and the loving support that folks felt had inspired them to stand up and speak their minds.

Messages were spiritual, and sometimes personal, but it struck me that they emanated from the stillness and peace that comes from a meditative state. I wondered if this was any different from my creative process that involved speaking in a musical language inspired by a certain stillness of mind. I read about George Fox and realized that what I was doing with my creative musical expressions was very similar to what Quakers do in meeting.

Is there a difference be-tween communicating with musical notes and rising in meeting and communicating a thought that comes from the spirit within? I think probably not. Unless one is playing music that was written in a calculated way to satisfy the demands of the marketplace.

We all share a connection as humans in that we are wired as spiritual beings. If we practice self-discipline, keep our minds and bodies pure, adhere to higher principles, and quiet our minds in contemplative thought, I believe we can all come to the same truth.

And I believe that the best music, art, poetry, and inclusive political thought with the goal of universal harmony, all come from the common spiritual principles that we share. The beauty of an idea expressed in meeting, such as a vision of world peace, is just as elegant, shimmering, and dramatic as a complex and inspired piece of music. It all comes from the spirit within, the God within us.

I am thankful for the gift that allows me to create music spontaneously, and that I don’t get those creative blocks anymore. I don’t feel that what I create is any more or less important than the inspired expressions that come from any human being, or, for that matter, a singing bird. It’s all part of our living, humming universe with its higher intelligence manifest in our best thoughts, words, music, and art as well as the trees, sky, water, and animals with which we share this planet.

Jim Dragoni

Jim Dragoni, a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is a guitarist, composer, and multimedia producer. He has written film music, electronic music, guitar music, and poetry. His work can be found at © 2002 Jim Dragoni