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The Orpheus Complex

Creating new music has become an absurd pursuit in this time of cultural devaluation. The myth of Orpheus gave me some insights on the music-making mission…

The story goes:  Orpheus, son of the muse Calliope and the god Apollo, was so musically gifted that he was able to entrance gods, humans and animals alike with the sound of his lyre.  He was creating a universal language that had the power to unite all beings.  Orpheus was in love with his wife Eurydice and everything could have been fine if… she hadn’t suddenly died, bitten by a poisonous snake while running away from an unwelcome suitor.  The heartbroken Orpheus took his lyre to the gates of Hell and played for the gods.  His piece was so beautiful that they allowed him to bring Eurydice back from the dead, but on one condition:  he could not look back at her.  This was a rather cruel and deceitful plan from the gods, because they knew very well that Orpheus was so in love that it would be impossible for him not to look at Eurydice – even just to see that she was actually there.  So he lost her for the second time, and had to blame himself for it this time, and experience the ultimate depth of despair. Finally he was destroyed by Bacchus whom he had forgotten to honor – but actually Bacchus did him a favor by giving him a way out.

Following are elements in this myth that I relate to the Orpheus complex:

The Gift:  Orpheus is enlightened, he has the gift.  He can channel universal forces through his music, but there is a responsibility attached to such a gift and that’s why he is always dealing with the powers that be.  Having the gift is like a curse, in a lot of ways.  But it is a privilege.

Negativity:  The gift of music can trigger the arrows of jealousy – as represented by the unwelcome suitor and the poisonous snake.  I am sure many of my colleagues also have experienced the bite.

Power versus influence: Orpheus is able to move the gods, but cannot persuade them.  This means that music can only alter consciousness.  The power of music affects the mental and emotional planes but does not have direct results on the plane of action. 

Detachment:  Why was Orpheus not allowed to look back at Eurydice?  This metaphor is very important as it relates to the attachment to the music-making power. There is a danger of being attached to what music can bring along with it, in its outer manifestations - name and fame – and eventually the music suffers, it becomes artificial and enters the realm of pretense.  To try to exercise the power over the material world is like Orpheus losing Eurydice for the second time.  In order to carry on, Orpheus had to have enough detachment to not look at Eurydice.  In order to make good music, one has to exercise detachment from what can be gained/lost from the presentation of the work.

Sublimation:  Why does Orpheus lose Eurydice?  This metaphor means that when making music, emotions must be sublimated, not transmitted as raw material.  Some styles of music are based entirely on that raw expression, such as punk rock and hip hop, but the Orpheus complex is about the more spiritual forms of musical expression.

Despair: Orpheus goes to the gates of hell to play for the gods.  This is the kind of desperate effort that is required whenever trying to make music for its own sake.  It takes a superhuman effort to get a project completed – especially during the current cultural devaluation in the U.S.  There is energy in despair and surprisingly it can be drawn upon to move ahead.

Wisdom: Orpheus’ fall from grace is echoed in every musician’s experience, dealing with the unpredictable, fickle powers that preside over their lives, all with very little logic. It is Bacchus’ anger that finally destroys Orpheus.  Bacchus is the god of wine, and by extension of drugs of all sorts, which can be the musician’s Nemesis - in experiencing unavoidable career ups and downs and the unpredictability of survival as an artist, there is a temptation to resort to escapism.

Orpheus has a responsibility to honor the gift, not in a selfish way, not in a vulgar way, to use it for his own benefit, but in a universal, channeling, sharing way.  The fragile new musical work can easily be destroyed by the mere lack of support from the Powers that Be, by the jealousy of less gifted souls who can become frustrated critics, by the weakness of addictions, or by the temptation of fame.  So if you experience the Orpheus complex, as a musician and composer, the most important effort yet is to protect yourself and your work from the chaotic interplay of inharmonious forces.

Elodie Lauten

Copyright Elodie Lauten 2007