As I approach my roughly 10-year anniversary as a composer, I thought I’d post a few things that might help other budding composers as they search for their voice, process, and inspiration. My own journey of compositional self discovery is, first and foremost, still happening, but a few crucial throughlines have made getting to this point possible. The most important of these is the ability to connect everything to, well, everything.
It started out as a game. When I was in the car as a kid, after reading billboards and digesting their meaning, I would disassemble the words into amounts of letters and try to find equal proportions between them (e.g. “Get a chocolate shake” has nine letters in chocolate and nine letters in the other three words). Later, I started to consider how a billboard’s message related to the previous one, even if they didn’t immediately have anything in common (e.g. an ad about an auto shop followed by an ad about a downtown club made me think about how often the cars they worked on had owners who frequented that club). While sometimes this way of thinking didn’t help–I’m the only one who thinks my jokes are funny or that I’m a savant when it comes to seeing facial similarities, but that’s a post for a different day–it sure does allow for exciting possibilities when learning about music.
Voice leading and harmonic motion have very particular historical tendencies and have evolved slowly and steadily over time. But experimentations in any particular time period– Gesualdo and Vincentino in the late Renaissance, Scriabin and Janáček in the late-19th Century, and Thomas Adès and Libby Larsen today are all good examples of this–offer brilliant, unique possibilities with seemingly disparate sounds. Luckily, we don’t have to look at extremes to understand this concept.
In order to experiment, there are a few key things to keep in mind:
- YOU CAN. No, experimenting won’t make you lose your mind and forget all the safe work you’ve done so far. Write it down and move on.
- Consider what’s missing. In a lesson with Libby Larsen, I once asked how she gets out of a rut when writing for piano. She held out her hands as if on the keys in the center of a piano, picked them up, spread her arms wide, and played an imaginary chord full of notes at either end of the keyboard. If something feels stale, find the opposite and try it.
- Consider what’s possible. Don’t throw out your ideas if they seem too outlandish, and don’t marry them as soon as they walk in the door. Take the time to nurture the ideas and see how they relate to what you’ve already written. There’s a reason why some composers have an entire page of staff paper full of scribbles, shapes, and drawings.
- GET IT OUT. You have music in you, and you just need to get it out by whatever means possible. A few years after that lesson with Libby mentioned above, I saw her speak about her work at the Source Song Festival. She suggests moving to whatever music you do have to help clarify the rest. If you dance around a room for an hour and end up with more on the page, is that embarrassing or is that smart (and efficient)? I’d say the latter.
This Synectic Artistry series of posts will focus on a variety of ways we can conceptualize the pieces we write. How do you find unique avenues of inspiration?