The LSD Experience, by Laurence Rosenthal

A celebrated composer hears celestial music

Photograph by Josep Molina Secall

A celebrated composer hears celestial music

Early in February 1961 I flew out to Los Angeles from my home in New York on an assignment to compose the musical score for a film. Soon after my arrival I was invited to a dinner party and found myself seated next to Dr. Oscar Janiger, a psychiatrist engaged in an experimental project with hallucinogenic drugs.

The idea was to administer a dose of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to a number of artists in various media–painters, sculptors, architects, composers—and then to study their responses, while under the influence of the drug, to examples of the art they practiced. This interested me very much, since I had recently read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, in which Huxley describes his experience with mescaline, an extract of the peyote cactus. His report of the experiment I found totally remarkable. (By coincidence, I was at the time working on a musical based on Huxley’s Brave New World and was having meetings with him.) I had heard that the effects of LSD were somewhat similar to those of mescaline, and Janiger’s project sounded intriguing.

Having learned in our chat that I was a composer who had been long interested in questions regarding consciousness and awareness, Janiger invited me to participate in the experiment. My first impulse was to accept the offer immediately. But I hesitated. I had for some years been connected with the Gurdjieff teaching and in conversations with my mentors had heard them speak with disdain about “finding Nirvana in a bottle of pills.” Although I had somewhat passively shared their view, the prospect of plunging into the unknown was now calling to me, and armed also with the memory of Huxley’s remarkable account of his mescaline experience, I agreed to take part in his experiment. He told me that the only payment he required was a written report of my experience with the drug, which could then be included in his study.

Shortly thereafter I showed up at his office, bringing with me a mini-phonograph and a pile of LPs of music that I liked. I also brought with me a pocket tape-recorder and microphone, permitting me to comment continually on what I was experiencing.

The report that he requested appears below. I have made amendments for clarification and length, but it is essentially as I wrote it nearly sixty years ago.

Adoration of the Magi (detail). Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488. Tempera on wood

Five weeks have elapsed since the extraordinary morning and afternoon which this account will try to recreate. The effect of LSD was so unexpected that I have needed all this time to arrive at a coherent picture of what happened, to sift through the torrent of impressions and sensations of those unforgettable seven or eight hours.

Although my spoken chronicle of events was faithfully registered on a tape-recorder as the day progressed, I knew then, even as I was reporting into the microphone, how lame and inarticulate were my descriptions of the inner drama that was taking place. Our Western vocabulary seems totally inadequate and unsuitable when it comes to dealing with an uncharted interior world, with a New Dimension of meaning. Entering this New Dimension can be compared only to the reaction of a man, blind from birth, who suddenly gains his sight and for the first time experiences color.

Of course it is now five weeks later and the danger exists of superimposing onto this supranormal experience a layer of rational thought. While thought can surely help to organize the mass of raw material one has accumulated, there is the risk that this very rationality, coming from a lower, more ordinary part of our awareness, could reduce the experience to what can be understood from an ordinary state and thus debase its essential quality.

What LSD produced in me was essentially a religious experience. None of the conventional symbols or verbal accoutrements of religious practice—with one notable exception—were in evidence. But the essence of religious experience, as I had always imagined it, permeated the afternoon to a degree of intensity I had never known, except for brief, fleeting moments.

These remembered moments from long ago occurred mostly while I was composing, but had been so intense and special that there was no mistaking their similarity to the far-more-prolonged LSD state. It was for me a kind of reassuring evidence. Without this basis for comparison, I might be tempted not to trust the drug-induced ecstasy, or at least to be more suspicious of a state of exaltation of such fantastic proportions which had come about through no inner effort of my own. But more of that later.   

I began with apprehension, excitement, nerves a little jumpy. I was in a rather unremarkable room of moderate proportions. Beyond some conventional furniture like armchairs, little tables, and a sofa, there were pictures on the wall, original drawings of people and landscapes. All quite ordinary. But on one table was a collection of Kachina dolls, made by the Hopi Indians. They are small wooden creatures who act as messengers between humans and the spirit world. They created a strange atmosphere in the room, mysterious and magical. Through a set of glass doors was a tiny courtyard containing an impressive eucalyptus tree.

My mind was racing. What would it be like? Soon Dr. Janiger appeared, affable but businesslike, and proceeded to pour a little bunch of blue pills into my hand from a vial that I noticed came from Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, where the original LSD formula was created. But my unease crept up another notch when I heard him say, “I think that in view of your experience in meditation and your long interest in consciousness, you can tolerate a pretty hefty dose.” So by now having passed from nervousness into unvarnished fear, I swallowed the handful. Suddenly Janiger was gone. I was alone. All the descriptions by Huxley and others were of no value now. All was unknown. One simply sits and waits.

Finally, about thirty-five minutes after taking the drug, I noticed that one of the Kachina dolls on the table across the room was vibrating in a strange aura of light, as though it were trying to come to life. Not all of them, only one. And nothing else in the room was different. Also, I began to notice soft but inexorable barriers taking form in my mind, blocking out past and future. I tried to think back or ahead. The walls yielded a bit, but held their ground. Only this moment counted. Past was gone; future hadn’t happened yet. Only the Now was real, only this Eternal Now (strangely static and unlike the constantly travelling present moment of the ordinary state) mattered to me. It was broad and luminous; it seduced me, riveted my attention. Attention on what? Only on the Now.

The pictures on the wall began to bore me. Music just seemed too much—it got in the way. But it was already an hour and a half, and still nothing more remarkable than the doll and this strange eerie prelude of silence and stillness, pregnant with what unknown presence? Suddenly, I was disappointed. “Somehow, it just won’t work on me.” Restless and disconsolate. Lethargic and heavy. I put music on the phonograph again. It sounded the same as always. I heard no unusual overtones; no celestial upper partials or harmonics filled the atmosphere.

But wait, gradually I realized the experience had started to become different. I had grown extremely sensitive. My flesh seemed charged with emotional responsiveness to the Mozart E-flat Symphony and my skin felt microscopically thin and porous so as to admit the music more easily. The inner lines of counterpoint were suddenly so clear and purposeful. The dissonances penetrated; the bass line was positively alive—it jumped and strode with a kind of cosmic purpose…. Yes, I was very sensitive, but my real emotions had not yet been engaged. My mind was charging ahead, speculating.

What was beginning, however, almost without my noticing it, was the extraordinary flowing or streaming sensation that would pervade the next hours, a feeling that my entire being was taking part in an event of ultimate importance. It was as though my body was being carried along in an increasingly powerful flood of energy and radiance. Whether it was happening to me or through me was hard to tell. But everything was more sensitive and alert; my listening was extremely acute. My emotions were very near the surface, always available. But what emotions? All of this was very paradoxical in view of my external state, which was lethargic and disinclined to move. The outer frame remained passive and delicately balanced to allow what was inside very actively to receive, actively to perceive, actively to be.

There was much resistance, however. Great waves of negation which came and went, inner talking from the Rational Center. It was as though there was still a lone man on duty in the Logic Department who knows what time it is, who remembers where he parked his car, who could probably find an exit in case of fire, and who also talks—and talks. About the fact that he simply cannot evaluate what is happening, but that this is, in fact, pretty suspect, the cheapest kind of metaphysical side-show provided by the Mephistophelian medicine man and his little blue pills. He asserts that a state of mystical ecstasy should have a quality of dignity, of exaltation, and an inner quiet—not this raging river of special effects.

This voluble talker was heard from periodically during the afternoon. But as the hours passed the resistance became weaker and finally disappeared in a blaze of light at the height of the experience.

Still I saw that my attitude toward this experiment was not as freely affirmative as I had thought. There was a considerable loss of valuable time spent in moralizing, rationalizing, and making agonized attempts to “see” myself in this unfamiliar state from a seat high up in the amphitheater of my mind. This was not only impossible, but also interfered, especially at the beginning, with the important matter of paying real attention to what was there for me to witness. I was observing from the wrong vantage point.

I had known about drugs given to novices in mystical schools of the East at the beginning of their training, for the purpose of providing a confirming glimpse of the kind of state they might one day reach through their own inner work. In fact it was a motive related to this idea that led me to try LSD. And now the mounting magnificence of the hours, growing constantly more radiant, finally melted all resistance.

Window decoration at Ludwig Beck department store, Munich. Photograph by Mattes

It was now about three and a half hours since I had swallowed the pills. The intensity and the luminosity kept growing. I had no company except the occasional momentary visit from Dr. J., who by now seemed quite irrelevant with his matter-of-fact inquiry, “How’s it going?” (at this point a totally unanswerable question). This part of the afternoon is the most difficult one to describe. Speaking and even breathing were often labored, because of the shattering intensity of feeling. Filling every second was the endlessly flowing sea of energy which streamed and roared and pulsed through my entire being.

Then, of course, there was the music. The program ranged through a number of varied styles: the Mozart E-flat Symphony and the famous C-major Piano Sonata, the Bizet Symphony in C, the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, the suite from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and my own incidental music for the Japanese play Rashomon. I was restricted to the few LPs I had with me in Los Angeles.

My reaction to these pieces (which was the aim of Janiger’s experiment) began with the conventional response but gradually took on a new character. It was as though the streaming ecstasy that was flowing through me had washed away my patience with any exterior posturing of music. I felt that I saw directly into its heart, and was interested only in what the music was really saying, while I remained completely indifferent to how it was dressed.

The Bizet reached me with a kind of charmed delicacy and warmth. It was still a little early in the music-listening and I was only mildly affected, albeit very positively. Bizet’s innate gentleness and modesty pervaded the music and his youthful (seventeen-year-old!) mastery was never pompous or exhibitionistic. His smiling melodies were captivating, full of great vivacity, laughter, and a love of being alive, to which I was becoming very responsive.

The Strauss was another matter. It began by titillating my senses in the extreme and indeed in rare moments (such as the irresistibly poignant first-act curtain) touched me very deeply. But largely I reacted badly to this music. I found it meretricious, pandering cunningly to the sensations, alternately cheap and showy, slick and empty, an ostentatious and dazzlingly skillful exploitation of Strauss’s personal brand of delicious post-Wagnerian chromaticism. Indeed, as Paul Henry Lang once commented: “Rosenkavalier is Figaro in rouge and lipstick.” For the first time, I heartily agreed. It finally offended me so deeply that I had to turn it off. I can hardly now believe this violent reaction to music I had long known and adored (and still do!).

My own Rashomon music impressed me a bit negatively, principally because it is largely descriptive or evocative theater music, and by now I craved something that reached deeper. Still, I remember being amused at the uncanny accuracy with which the exotic, percussive sounds and febrile rhythms reflected my own growing weirdness of state. But seductive as were these dramatic sonorities and rich Asian colors which I had created myself, I was drawn more and more toward interiority, and this kind of music, intriguing though it was, was now no longer of very great interest to me.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Barbara Krafft, 1819

The great triumph of the afternoon was that of Mozart. As the day wore on I had no patience for anything other than Mozart. Only he was capable of the utter simplicity and purity I craved. The unearthly blend of angelic sweetness and innocence and the deepest human feeling, combined in an effortless and sophisticated mastery of musical materials, kept bringing me alternately to fits of laughter and weeping. I only regret I had no Bach to listen to, with his sublime fusion of objective, cosmic geometry and the most profound love of God. In fact, a sense I have always had about great music was absolutely verified by me on this day. It is about the divine as opposed to the merely human. It was this divine quality that I was thirsting after. The quality that separates Bach and Mozart from Scarlatti, Haydn, and even much of Beethoven, a quality that separates Schubert from Schumann and Brahms, in spite of the undeniable greatness of them all. And this was not theorizing. These distinctions were now absolutely clear and unequivocal.

A notable exception was that anguished human, Mussorgsky. His Pictures at an Exhibition touched me very profoundly, especially, for some reason, the plaintively quarreling children in the Garden of the Tuileries, with the beautifully harmonized falling minor third, the universal children’s taunt. This quality of the childlike, directly related to the divine (Jesus: “Unless you become…as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”) is something that concerned me a good part of the day. The uncluttered, direct, and innocent perception of the child is a remembered faculty that LSD seemed to evoke and perhaps even to revive for a moment. I did a good deal of weeping during the Mussorgsky, but then a kind of joyous surge began to flow upward in me, and finally his troubled world was more than I could bear. I longed for Mozart.

In fact, at the end of the afternoon, I felt with perfect certainty that Mozart in his famous little C-major Sonata, the one that all kids play, had said everything that needed to be said in music, or in any other way, for that matter. (I’m still inclined to believe I was right!) It was a constant Affirmation. After every phrase I kept shouting aloud, “That’s right, Wolferl, that’s right!” as though he had spoken the most obvious and simple truths—which, of course, he had. I was filled with affection for this man, with his big nose and his little body, for his sonata, for myself, for my arm that kept conducting the music. By now it was impossible to distinguish among them. The logical sequence that Mozart the man (the archangel!) had composed this music which was being performed by a pianist so that I could hear it and my arm could respond to its pulse—all this was nonsense. They were simply different facets of a dazzling prism in this flood, this streaming torrent of light and harmony, love and grace.

The music was me was my arm was Mozart was God. At one moment during the slow movement (I remember the exact little phrase) I knew that the music had to do with mothers and children, with everything that was soft and warm and tender. At another moment, in the Symphony, I discovered myself standing in a corner of the room, head bowed, palms together in an attitude of prayer—a position I had never in my recollection assumed. Then I heard myself asking God for the power to feel compassion.

The emotions that filled this part of the day were so powerful and so much from this New Dimension of feeling, that there is very little I can say except to report them. Their intensity was almost unendurable, their nature unknown and indescribable. They seemed to be about a kind of Love we cannot experience as we are. For a few moments I understood them and recognized them as Truth. Now I can only remember that I understood for a moment. The understanding is gone; only the memory of it remains.

While my innards were being ripped apart by the intensity of these feelings (and I was suddenly recalling Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), while I was streaking like a rocket through this emotional world, I also recalled Gibran’s words about Sorrow, which carves us out inside so that we may contain more Joy. This was precisely what I felt in those hours. At one point, resenting the enclosing room, I ran out, with some effort, into the little courtyard. The tree that was standing there affected me perhaps more deeply than anything that day. It said everything. It represented everything. It was God’s bounty. It was Beauty, it was Fertility, it was Providence, it was Divine Grace. All at once I burst into uncontrollable tears. Unable to bear the intensity, I had to come inside. My body was now a torrential river, relentlessly coursing through me. At the same time it felt like some unknown stringed instrument being played by an unseen hand that drew its bow across me to release a kind of music which there are no words to describe.

Equally impossible to reduce to words is the general change in the mode of perception at the summit of the experience. At one point I said into the microphone: “It’s an emotional world. Everything is emotion, everything is now in values.” Somehow the significance of things, from ashtrays to symphonies to trees, became the primary object of perception. I saw not a table, but—quite clearly and simply—“tableness,” the reality of the object which at this moment had far more concreteness than the table itself: the nature of table. As in the case of the tree, this all came in emotional terms—in terms I have no adjectives to describe, except that these terms expressed meaning beyond words or concepts. In this connection, there was much impatience with the man-made and a deep craving for the creations of nature. The leaf of a plant was simply the result of a creative chain that went back to the ultimate source of everything. I’m afraid the plastic rose enclosed in a glass sphere that I angrily smashed on the floor was a victim of that impatience!

The visual hallucinations were certainly one of the most “entertaining” features of the afternoon. There is no denying the extraordinary splendor of what I saw. The room trembled with violets and bluey reds, shimmering and radiating from pictures and objects. I found I could make visual things happen as I chose. Outlines of drawings vibrated with life; the eyes in the painting of a little girl grew transparent to admit me to infinite under-layers of depth and meaning. This was all fused with Mozart’s melodic line that was singing through the air at that moment. I could not for a time distinguish between sight and sound. Later Mozart’s woodwind harmonies released ethereal glowing purples and pinks in shafts of light that radiated out from pictures in precise synchronization with the music.

But this dazzling show, which took place just after the effect of the drug began to decline, seemed to me, then as now, to be a charming side effect, a little diversion which was as nothing compared to the totally overpowering emotional drama which preceded it. But at the same time, I am bound to admit that this visual spectacle could very well have a significance that escapes my understanding.

The decline of the effect was attended by a deep poignancy, a tenderness, and a regret, as an extraordinary world began to slip away and one felt the familiarity of the emotional and perceptual terra firma begin to drift into place. There was both total physical exhaustion and profound nostalgia for what had come and gone. It must also be reported that in the midst of all this, one inner voice expressed secret relief to be returning to the Known, after all that spooky lunacy. That is a voice I’m sure is familiar to us all.

There is one more incident I wish to relate. It was a brief moment somewhere in the midst of an intense period of joy. It was for me perhaps the most sublime moment of all. I was standing in the middle of the room, quiet, contained, available. And I became aware of the sensation of a velvet cloak that was hanging from my shoulders. The cloak had bars of lead sewn into its lining. The weight on my body was enormous, a burden very hard to bear. And then, quite suddenly, the cloak slipped off my shoulders and fell to the floor. I was immediately filled with a profound exaltation, and a voice in me called out: “I am, in this very instant, free! Liberated from every petty, negative emotion. I am free of anger, jealousy, envy, fear.” I suddenly saw with absolute certainty that I did not need any of these absurd encumbrances. I suddenly felt what it would be like to be a Man. I exulted. I laughed. The memory of this moment, of the music I was hearing, of the exact posture my body was in, of the expression on my face, of the sound of my voice, of the light in the room, is totally precise.

It was an unbelievable, entirely unexpected journey. One has been there and back, but the nature of the travelling and of the destination remains a haunting enigma. There was a frequent alternation of inexpressible joy and unbearable suffering. One is galvanized into attention, attention to a fantastic adventure that shatters, sears, and exalts one’s entire being, and yet which one cannot depict with even one really true word. The dimension is unknown and unknowable to us as we are.

However, even after this all-too-brief voyage, it becomes clear to me that this New Dimension and the nature of its reality is somehow related to Man’s reason for existing on the earth; and that any life lived without a persistent inner need to “be” in relation to this dimension is a life without meaning.

20 April 1961

St. Cecilia as Organist (detail). Frans Francken the Younger, seventeenth century. Oil on panel

Again by coincidence, I had dinner with Huxley the very next evening. He was surely one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. The scope of his intellectual grasp was nothing short of monumental. There seemed to be nothing he didn’t know. And he carried this encyclopedic knowledge with an incomparable lightness and grace. One was staggered by the amazing detail of what he knew and yet it emerged from him with such charm and casualness that one only wanted to hear more and more. He was at the time nearly blind and it was poignant to see him put his wrist watch a half inch from his eye in order to see what time it was.

I couldn’t wait to tell him of my experience of the day before. Of course, he knew of Janiger and his work. But when he heard of the conditions in which the experiment had been conducted, the completely clinical atmosphere, the fact that I was alone the whole time, the enclosed space of a room in a doctor’s office, he was appalled. While he was completely open to and interested in my experience of the day before, he said, “My God, Larry, you should have been out in the countryside, in the midst of nature. You should have been able to put your hand on a cow’s back, listen to the wind, marvel at the vast expanse of the sky. You should have had a friend with you, another human with whom to share your experience. Perhaps even someone who had at the same time taken a mild dose of the same drug so that he could be in harmony with you, vibrate with you.”

I saw instantly the truth in what Huxley was saying. It could have been quite different. Better, perhaps. But his words still could not diminish the overpowering effect of what I had experienced.

Completely riveting as it had all been, it was also quite exhausting physically. Even the thought of repeating the experience was totally out of the question. And, in fact, I have never had any desire to try it again. It was unforgettable. It was the verification of the possibility of a different mode of consciousness. Perhaps it was a taste of what certain saints and holy beings have experienced in moments of ecstasy. But surely one cannot live on that mountain top.

What remains, however, is the absolute knowledge that there is another mode of perception possible, a way of looking at the world, at the wonder of nature, at other people, at life, that is truer than the matter-of-fact state in which we seem to exist most of the time. And the consciousness that we are not separate. That we are as integral to the universe as a blade of grass, or a molecule, or an insect, or a volcano, or a star. And that there is the possibility of having the absolute sensation of belonging to the cosmos, of being one with it, in a relaxed, transparent body. The possibility of that awareness is for me the greatest gift I received on that March day in 1961.

From Parabola Volume 44, No. 2, “The Wild,” Summer 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a year Parabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation.

By Laurence Rosenthal

Laurence Rosenthal is a composer, arranger, and conductor who has scored a number of film classics including A Raisin in the Sun, Becket, and Meetings with Remarkable Men. He is one of the world’s foremost performers and commentators on the music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.