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Music and Inspiration
How do we create and does music need an explanation to be valid?
🎵 something to listen to whilst reading…
A few thoughts going through my mind at the moment that I can’t shake and just wanted to get out onto the page.. Hope something resonates with you.
Music and Inspiration
Whenever I get asked about how I create music, it’s always a tough one to answer. Try as I may to put a finger on why I compose in the way I do and ultimately I fail to do so.
One answer I sometimes fall back on is; it's as if all of the music I've ever enjoyed has squished together in my head to form a giant multi-coloured ball of Play-Doh from which I pull my ideas.. Not particularly inspiring! But one thing I do know is that music-making is far from a conscious effort. When I write, it's very much an unconscious process. Jonathan Harvey sums it up perfectly in his book Music and Inspiration;
inspiration requires the involvement of the unconscious mind: it cannot take place at a purely conscious level.
You can just as easily substitute the word 'inspiration' for 'creation' here!
Judging by the fact that Harvey wrote a whole chapter about the topic, it's clear that I'm not alone in my feeling of being clueless about where my music comes from... French composer Edgard Varèse noted:
the composer knows as little as anyone else about where the substance of his work comes from
It seems that even Beethoven was none-the-wiser:
you may ask me where I obtain my ideas. I cannot answer with any certainty: they come unbidden, spontaneously or unfortunately. I may grasp them with my hands in the open air, while walking in the woods, in stillness of night, at early morning. Stimulated by these moods that poets turn into words, I turn my ideas into tones, which resound, roar and rage until at last they stand before me in the form of notes.
Oh dear, so even the greatest composers of all time couldn't explain it.
Is the music already inside, waiting to be discovered?
Another way to think about this, and one that I particularly resonate with is that a finished piece of music is already formed inside of me and my time spent composing is an attempt to unearth, or discover, it. In the way an archeologist might uncover a skeleton at a paleontological dig—carefully and slowly!
Presumably this means there is simply no other way to compose other than the way I do. When sitting in front of my computer, I'll almost always start with a bare skeleton of a piece and most of my time is slowly increasing its layers of sound until I land on something that just feels 'right'. At this point, to add or subtract anything would make the piece less enjoyable. For me this is the point where I have no other choice but to stop. Austrian-British composer Egon Wellesz described it as
like approaching a tree in the mist; at first we see only the outline, then the branches, and finally the leaves
If ever there was a perfect quote to describe the process of making music, this is it!
But sometimes there are times I've fussed over getting a melody, or sound, just right to eventually delete it, turn it all the way down in the mix or completely start again from a clean slate. It sometimes happens that no amount of digging will allow you to find dinosaur bones if you're grubbing around in the wrong spot.
Here's just one of a plethora of tracks that I've given up on and won't ever release. I started heading down the wrong path early and eventually couldn't find anything that sounded good with the raw material I'd ended up with. Sometimes, to fix a track is just a matter of removing or changing one instrument or sound, but in the case of this piece it felt better to move on, but with a renewed sense of what works and what doesn't.
feel free to steal this and make something better from it! Please share it with me.
Creating as a necessary part of living
Another question is why do I create? Sometimes I wonder if I should stop writing music due to the fact that it takes up a huge part of my life and, in all honesty, doesn't provide a huge ROI.
In fact after Wander the Night Japan, a collaboration that I released last year with good friend and photographer Cody Ellingham, I took some time off from writing anything and instead turned my hand to more physical endeavours—particularly working with wood. I didn't write a single note of music for well over six months. It's worth noting that this was the longest break I'd had in the last 5 years.
I think it was the burnout of such a big project (writing the music, vinyl release, physical liner notes booklet, interviews, press release etc.) that fuelled this hiatus. It's during that break that I started seriously considering giving up on writing music entirely. Thankfully, I realised rather quickly that giving up after all the hard work I put in was frankly stupid. Gradually, I began composing again and started work on the first minutes of what eventually became my latest album Meditations. It was when reflecting on the thought of what composing adds to my life (disregarding the sales figures or streaming numbers for a second) that I found the desire to start writing again. I took great comfort in, and agree strongly with, the words of Sergei Rakhmaninov here;
composing is as essential a part of my being as breathing or eating; it is one of the necessary functions of living. My constant desire to compose music is actually the urge within me to give tonal expression to my feelings, just as I speak to give utterance to my thoughts. That, I believe, is the function that music should serve in the life of every composer; any other function it may fill is purely incidental.
So I guess all of these thoughts are sticking in my mind right now because I'm wondering if music becomes less important if we, as musicians (or artists or fill in the blank), cannot explain where our ideas come from? Or if we haven't got an A4 length album bio that explains what difficult life circumstances led us to compose each track?
Can music that just exists still be good enough?
Are you a creator? Do you have more of a grasp on where the ideas come from? I'd love to hear more down in the comments!
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