Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Fantastic Symphony

Perhaps unique for a 1983 graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, all of my experience with drug-induced expansions of perception were vicarious in nature and — to date — I've smoked exactly one cigarette, which had nothing but ordinary commercial-grade tobacco in it*. Nevertheless, I was wildly interested in the possibility of be able to hear more, going so far as to replicate John Cage's famous visit to an anechoic chamber and even spending an essentially Santa Cruz evening floating in the warm salt water of a sensory depravation chamber, but these experiences were enhanced by nothing more chemical than perhaps a room temperature can of Mountain Dew or a chocolate-covered expresso bean, my then-favorite means for pulling study all-nighters.

I twice started dissertations about prominent experimental music composers only to get hung up by the fact that I had no idea how to deal with their drug use. The composers in question were active in an era in which drug use among artists was not unusual, and in their personal (one of the two actually spent some time in jail on a drug bust; the other I never met when he did not appear to be tripping) and, especially, musical biographies, drug use was so central that the fact that I had no personal handle on the topic seemed to unduly limit my work. In the end, this was a major reason among several for dropping each project.

My experience with opiates has been, until today, limited to their use in dental surgery. But today, I've taken a plunge: I returned from Budapest last week feeling great, but a day later discovered that the chicken pox which disrupted Christmas Vacation in my first year of grade school had returned with the vengeance known as shingles. The skin blisters I can handle, but the neuralgia that has come with it, making it impossible to sit, lie, stand, lean, or move anywhere for more than ten minutes without irritation, agitation and pain caused me to break down and ask the doctor for a strong pain killer. He obliged with all the appropriate warnings, and I've done my obligatory avoidance of driving vehicles or operating heavy machinery. (Heck, I'm even staying away from the blender and the electric toothbrush, a very scary pair of machines given the right frame of mind.)

So, now I'm having my own long-avoided chemically-induced state of altered consciousness. And so far, I have one salient musical observation, which is that the idea of Berlioz may have been inspired by an opium experience in writing his Marche au supplice, but by no means could he have written it while on opium. For me, I can make some non-consequential sounds on the piano, and I can certainly imagine some more interesting sounds, but nothing like really composing. Well, at least I can blog...
*For the record, lest I sound like a prude, I did like my bourbon and dark beers, and I very much enjoy swearing. Moreover, I have removed Gideon Bibles from motel rooms. (see: Ogdon Nash, The Strange Case of the Irksome Prude.)


PMG said...

You know, it's also really hard to teach about compositional drug use. This has particularly been a problem for me when I teach La Monte Young, (something I do pretty regularly since my little functionaries have never heard of him.) His drug use is obviously pretty inescapable from the music of the 60s I'm teaching, and I don't want to lie about that. But at the same time, I've learned that if I mention any hint of drugs, that gives my skeptical students license to laugh off everything he did as just some kind of drug-addled craziness. Haven't quite figured out the best way to handle that yet.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Argh, Daniel - you have my sympathies about the shingles. There's a vaccine but in the US, maybe not in Germany, it tends to be reserved for people over 60 even if they had chicken pox as a kid.

As for the rest, I also take my drugs legally, and like a nice single malt or cocktail from time to time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Forgot to subscribe to the comments...)

Steve Hicken said...

Sympathies, Daniel.

I once had a composer ask me what I was on when I wrote a certain piece, and if I had any of it on me.

Alas, I was sober as a judge.

David Wolfson said...

I've always comforted myself with the notion that drugs are not the only way to reach altered states of consciousness.

By the way, I agree with you about blenders. Hope you feel better!