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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

“The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” - Alice Munro

As artists, we constantly look for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from outside of us (daily life, another artist, a transformative experience, religion, art, or literature). Sometimes it comes from within. The kind of person we are indelibly shapes how we find and use inspiration. I used to have a running joke with a friend of mine, when we were going to a lot of new-music concerts in New York City. If someone is a jerk, his or her music is usually annoying. If someone has sublime aspects to their being, you can hear it in the music. The music became a kind of litmus test, the findings of which we would confirm as necessary - - and it was usually spot on. At the same time, we quickly learned that there is much more in people than can be perceived on a first (or second) listening.

Dreams contain imagery that can reveal how our inner selves understand our experiences. Empowered by this knowledge, we can consciously alter how we process (and respond to) these experiences. Jungian analysis is a process by which we actively remember our dreams, write them down, and discuss them on a regular basis with someone who acts as a guide. This person is trained in the analysis of dream imagery - - both with perspectives drawn from Jung’s work, and with the scholarship that has developed since his era - --and has undergone an in-depth analysis themselves. The goal of Jungian analysis is individuation, or becoming more oneself.  Transplanted from the psychoanalytic context into our own, this concept encapsulates the natural process of a composer finding his or her voice. Listening to (and analyzing) our dreams can facilitate this process.

I used to fear that if I knew my inner world better, the mystique of being an artist would disappear, and the strength of things that come from the subconscious would be mitigated, even diminished. On the contrary, cultivating a dialogue with unconscious areas of my mind has helped over time to clarify my expressive intent and to hone my technique as a composer, and the mysterious parts didn’t go away - - they deepened as I began to develop a more active relationship to them.  Like any process that involves humans, it’s not perfect - -but it can make our work shaped to a lesser degree by aspects of who we are as people that we don’t understand.

A dream about a vast, powerful ocean depths once gave me the courage to have faith in the slow gestation of a piece that I was having difficulty beginning.  I discovered a link between the wild ocean imagery and the depths of the undulating, unseen areas where a new work’s genesis lies. Analyzing certain dreams has helped me to handle complexity in a musical texture. By taking away confusion, it allowed me to clarify exactly what the technical issue at hand was. This has led me to be more transparent in my music, and has given me a desire to hear all of the voices clearly when I layer lines. When a texture gets dense, I have clearly audible voices where, in an earlier work, I might have used clusters.

The elusive area where passion meets technique is the realm of dreams. If something is missing or unfulfilled, either in art or in life, it will usually find its way into a dream. If we are listening, these dreams can help us to formulate more potent questions.  In our art, we become more aware of what tools we need to add to our arsenal, and cognizant of when we are doing something in our work because it is the only thing we are able to do at that time.  This can be freeing, because otherwise we might get stuck in the same place, kept there by our technical limitations. Dream interpretation naturally brings us more in touch with our emotions. This can render our work a more agonizing process for us, but can also make it speak more directly to our listeners. We may sense more rich, complex resonances between the past and the future, and among different aspects of our lives that we didn’t know were connected.

The process of exploring dreams also taps into painful things that have been buried.  When you feel the negative emotions more clearly, you also feel the positive ones in your life more precisely. It’s as if the visual scheme of your life experience goes up a notch, to Technicolor. If we are receptive - - by listening to our dreams and writing them down before we forget them- - then more will emerge. The more material from the subconscious that we externalize, the more it is integrated into us, and the less rigid we are - - the less controlled by what we don’t understand. We are able to discern and to change old patterns in our technique and in our expression.  For me, it is difficult to distinguish between the natural process of maturing as a composer, and what is attributable to my investment in learning about my dreams. I’m using Jungian analysis as a tool to help me mature artistically; perhaps I would have arrived at the same place if I simply followed through on where I want to go musically. But it has helped give me the confidence to keep growing, to experience life more fully, and to realize that complexity can be a good thing.

Jungian Analysis requires discipline, patience, faith, and an analyst who is truly able to listen to you and hear you without imposing their own judgments. That particular skill is an extremely rare one. Also, there are times when dream analysis can be distracting - -- when you just need to focus on getting the music realized, and nothing should come in the way of that. But  I encourage everyone, whether or not they pursue this particular path, to consider how working on the whole person can enrich their work as a composer (or artist in any medium). You can’t reap only the benefits you want from your soul. It is the entire person that goes into making your art. The parts that you are surprised to discover about who you are as a person might make your music more interesting: If you do what seems like a simple thing musically, there will be much more behind it. To “own” that can be empowering.

Think of the image of the ocean beach outside my studio in Flatrock, on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, where the sun rises first in all of North America. It is a beach of rocks.  The ocean laps up to the rocky shoreline, and drops off quickly when you go out to sea. Looking out across the water, you see open ocean with a vast horizon. If you went out on it and kept going indefinitely, you would reach the United Kingdom. I asked a fisherman who grew up in the area how deep the water is. He told me that it drops off quickly very close to the shore, to 100 metres quite suddenly --  and then to hundreds of metres. As I look at the beach and the surface of the water, I know that the ocean just beyond is unfathomably deep. Far beyond that, it taps into the entire ocean, and that ocean is part of a system of multiple oceans. I won’t ever see that deeper part. But I gain an incredible serenity - - and an ever-present awareness of a vast, apocalyptic force -- from knowing that it’s there.

Kati Agócs