Where art thou, muse?

Where art thou, muse?

Dunedin musician and Critic music editor Adrian Ng explores the phenomenon of the artist’s muse, from greek and roman mythology to the early musical influences of his childhood.

Having released two records around the start of the year, I was unfortunate enough to be the only individual available for press-related purposes. As a result there was a two-to-three week span where responding to an interview became part of my daily routine. It even earned a spot amongst other staple pastimes, such as walking to my studio, playing online Scrabble and pretending to be productive.

The first thing I realised from doing this fascinating yet self-indulgent activity was just how much I started to loath the act of describing my own music. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love music and I enjoy saying things like, “I love Black Sabbath,” or, “that’s a really good song, man.” But when faced with questions like,

“How would you describe your sound?”


“How has the Dunedin Sound influenced how you sound?”

The responses that eventually sprung forth from my mind were so full of bullshit, it’s plainly embarrassing looking back at them now. The interesting thing was realising how little I actually thought about those elements when writing a piece of music. Especially because my process mainly involved sitting on my bed, strumming my guitar, and mumbling like a fool until I thought I heard something useful. But as dull as my writing process was, something must have moved me enough to want to express myself, right? Which brings me to the second thing I realised.

“What is it that inspired you?”

This was the only question I got asked in every interview. Not in those exact words, and not quite as direct, but in some shape or form it was always implied. Having conducted a few interviews myself this year, this was a question I also included every time I had the privilege of interviewing a musician or a songwriter. Why? Well, it’s obvious, right? Knowing the source of inspiration for an artist can add an entirely new dimension to the music. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of creative impulse, and to be transported to that environment, those experiences, those emotions. To get any sort of insight into the headspace of an artist while they’re in the midst of creating can be simply fascinating.

Every now and then we hear about artists who you could argue reached points of transcendence during certain periods of their lives. Those individuals became seemingly untouchable within the boundaries of their craft and created some of their greatest work as if under a divine trance. These artists were often described as being under the spell of a “muse.”

The idea of a muse originated from early Greek and Roman mythology. The “Nine Muses” were goddesses of inspiration who, in their divinity, were the embodiment of knowledge and the arts. In fact, the word mousa in Greek translates directly to mean “art” or “poetry.”

Though there are several varying accounts, the most common version of the story insists that the muses were the nine daughters of Zeus (the father of the gods) and Mnemosyne (the embodiment of memory). These goddesses had a duty to inspire artists, usually musicians and poets, and also to promote the sciences and the arts. Their main function was to give wise counsel, sooth or calm broken hearts with music or poetry, and to enlighten the path for troubled heroes.

Today a “muse” is seen as a person who is the source of inspiration for an artist, or plainly any source of inspiration. However, in poetry and song, they are celebrated beings and an almost mystical source of artistic power.

“Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long. To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?” Writes William Shakespeare in “Sonnet 100.”

In my own experience, and thinking about my creative process, I have to say this worshipping of the muse is still a foreign concept to me. I’m not saying I haven’t been truly inspired by certain people I’ve met in my life, or special experiences and places I’ve been. The muse is something that is definitely present and a way of channelling inspiration; but is it a little overblown, perhaps?

The way I see it, we’re all human beings with the capacity to feel things and be moved by the world around us. We’re feeling things all the time, all of us. Sometimes they’re subtle moments of beauty and sometimes they’re waves of intense emotion. Being inspired by the world around us is all part of the human experience.

Bringing it back to mythology, where the muse is seen as a goddess who bestows divine inspiration onto the artist, that sounds wonderful and all, but in reality we have to understand that a muse is not capable of transforming a person into an artist. Instead it’s up to the artist to transform a person or certain aspects of his or her life into a muse. Unless, of course, the muse you encounter is really some sort of supernatural being.

Anyone can be inspired, but sadly not everyone has developed the kind of creative ability to filter that inspiration into a unique form of artistic expression. As much as we like to romanticise it, inspiration is just one part of the equation. Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, or whoever could’ve been brimming out of their ears with inspiration, still needed to pick up a pen or a guitar and get to work. They still needed a certain amount of skill in order to transform all that inspiration into song and lyric.

We could talk about Etta James, who was a pool player’s abandoned daughter. She was beaten by her foster father, referred to as “Sarge,” and was forced to sing against her will. Her trauma was so deep that she was at first reluctant to sing again. However, it was only through music that she finally felt a sense of self worth and belonging. Even though every note that left her mouth sounded as if a giant saw was dragged across her heart, it was that quality which made her voice so special, so fractured, and true. It was what made her music weigh a little more than your average tune about heartbreak.

In this case, we could argue that Etta James’ muse was her own shattered life or crippled upbringing. It was a force beaten into her existence by a mix of bad luck and tragic circumstance. She was blessed with an incredible voice, but it was everything that bubbled beneath her wailing instrument that helped her transcend the label of being just another talented vocalist.

What we also have to understand, though, is that there are thousands, probably millions, of individuals that have come from a similar situation as Etta James. All inspired by a similar kind of muse, which is horrible and life changing, but that doesn’t lead to great art. Horrible experiences don’t create transcendent artists out of all of those who have them.

I believe in the muse but, more importantly, I believe in putting in the work and I believe in the individuality of the artist.

The psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that the muse was, in fact, an unconscious part of the artists themselves, or, more specifically, their anima or animus – which is basically our hidden feminine or masculine personality.

According to Jung’s theory, the function of the muse was not to just inspire but to unlock the artist’s masculine or feminine side. They were physical beings that acted as a canvas, fulfilling an artist’s inner projections of femininity or masculinity. Which isn’t quite as
romantic, I know.

For example, if we asked Jung it wouldn’t have been Suzanne Verdal that Leonard Cohen visualised in his mind and wrote about in the song “Suzanne.” It wasn’t her feeding him tea and oranges by the river, instead it was his anima projected onto another living being. It was his inner vision of femininity melding with the physical “Suzanne” to form someone else altogether, the muse “Suzanne” who existed in the world of the song; an angelic being, “half crazy,” and a bohemian sorceress of the mind.

To some extent, Jung’s idea of the muse may be accurate. But I believe the connection felt between artist and muse is sometimes more than just a celebration of an artist’s hidden ego. Being a muse could also mean being inspiring in a different way. Like through encouragement, friendship or love.

In the autobiography of poet and songwriter Patti Smith, Just Kids, she describes her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe, a photographer she met in New York. The two shared their lives and worked together as an artistic tandem; as two individuals who inspired each other – though not always directly, but through their relationship and support for one another. “I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.”

Unlike Jung, I also feel a muse should not necessarily be limited to just human relationships. It could be a book, a tree, the sea, or another song. It could be a place – the Hotel Chelsea in New York, for example. A historic building that was inhabited by a plethora of well-known artists, poets and writers, including the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf, Stanley Kubrick and Henry Chopin. It was an affordable accommodation option that was the initial draw for many struggling artists. “It seemed a wonderfully out-of-the-way place, nearly a slum, where nobody would be likely to be looking for me,” described Arthur Miller in his short piece, “The Chelsea Affect.”

“Here’s Room 506, it’s enough to make you sick” and “Here’s Room 115, filled with S & M queens,” Nico sings in the title track to her 1967 album Chelsea Girls. The track is written by none other than the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and based off the movie of the same name. Directed by Andy Warhol, the movie starred many of Warhol’s superstars such as Ondine, Brigid Berlin and Nico. Many of them were actual residents of the hotel and played themselves. But, at the same time, they depicted the strange happenings and life within the Chelsea in a less autobiographical way.

The Hotel Chelsea feels to me like the perfect example of how a building could somehow act as an inanimate muse; not only a central point for creative individuals, but with its own unique character, atmosphere and colourful history. It’s an aggregator of the past, and this instilled within its inhabitants a certain tendency to express themselves.

“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel. You were famous, your heart was a legend” Leonard Cohen sings in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The song recalls the songwriter’s experiences with Janis Joplin while they were both residents in the building. But more than that, it’s a love song to the Chelsea. The culture, the inhabitants, the lifestyle, all captured beautifully in three minutes of music. “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, that’s all, I don’t think of you that often.”

I believe a muse may be a person, a relationship, it may be a place, it may be a memory, an experience. But it’s not the same for everyone. So, what inspires you? Where do you go about finding inspiration? Where does one even start?

If there’s anything I’ve realised, it’s that finding inspiration is not the important part. It’s slowly building up the skills to know how to use that inspiration. The thing about inspiration is people sit around waiting for it to find them, but what people forget to do is work at it. There are no shortcuts.

I started learning how to play the guitar when I was about fifteen-to-sixteen years old. Apart from the usual group of foreign students I sat with at school, I was hanging out with a group of older kids at that point and they were into stuff like Backstreet Boys and Westlife and, as a result, those were the first songs I learnt how to play. But we should probably never dwell on that.

I didn’t come from a musical background whatsoever; I was pretty much just into basketball and computer games. So music was still an entire universe waiting to be discovered. The melodies and how it all fitted together just amazed me. I was obsessed, and so I searched and searched for more, consuming as much as I could. Yes! Thank you, Internet.

When I started taking guitar lessons for a short period, I was introduced to a wide range of artists I’d never heard of. I would basically use up all my tuition time asking about what new music I should check out next. What I accomplished from doing this was that I found an overall appreciation for music and I developed a personal taste. I got an idea of what I loved and what I would like to create. I’ve spent years and years trying to reach that point, but failing over and over again.

One thing I’ve come to realise is that inspiration is a mere formality and something that isn’t necessary to start your creative journey. That being said, I do feel you have to be impatient enough to chase inspiration down sometimes, or at least fake inspiration ‘til the real thing arrives.
This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2014.
Posted 3:11pm Sunday 11th May 2014 by Adrian Ng.