What inspires you?

August 1st, 2008 Composition, FAQs, Italy, Native Americans

This is the question people most frequently ask me about composing.  Where do you get your inspiration, your ideas, and then, how do you set about actually writing?  The first part is about catalyst, the second part refers to method and craft.

I was maybe 14 when I first started composing.  Initially I drew inspiration from music itself, mainly by imitating the music I had absorbed from studying piano, playing or singing in ensembles, or from what I’d heard in concerts, broadcasts or on recordings.  What I had in my ears ran quite a gamut.  My piano lessons were classical, but before that, I had sung in the church choir and spent summers at choir camp.  As time went on, I was in various school ensembles – concert band (as a percussionist), stage band (Dixieland mainly), and accompanied shows and assemblies (Broadway tunes, traditionals) – and had a little combo that did its own arrangements of pop songs like “Washington Square”.  A while after that I had a jazz quartet that leaned toward tunes like “So What” and “Watermelon Man.”  In addition, I like the majority of American kids my age had been exposed to a decade and a half of music transmitted through radio and TV, everything from Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford to Elvis and the Beatles to movie and TV themes and commercial jingles.  I had seen Liberace’s show many times and was no stranger to Dick Clark.   After a certain point, I started to exercise selectivity about which type of thing to emulate and which not.  The line up seemed to include Beethoven and Chopin from the classical side, and Brubeck and Bill Evans from the jazz side.  These were the people I chose as my models, and their music provided direct inspiration.  But as I say, this was all something of an imitative trial effort.

A bit further along I got wrapped up in Schubert Lieder, and wrote some art songs in that vein.  I even sent one (a German setting) to Fischer-Dieskau who, by God, actually wrote back (!) encouraging my “great gift” yet advising that I “put it in the hands of a severe taskmaster.”  This marked a turning point and I began to study harmony and orchestration very seriously, and plunged into score analysis.  My focus was adjusted almost solely on the classical tradition, with an aperture toward more modern achievements in large form composition – Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev… and Leon Kirchner would soon make an appearance in the horizon.  For the moment, Beethoven remained the supreme figure, but relying on him for inspiration soon would end.  The imitative phase would be over.

My beloved and severe taskmaster, the mentor who guided my piano and theory studies, and who beyond that had fostered broader humanist interests, died.  Suddenly the kind of composition I had been doing was insufficient to express my feelings.  In my loss I discovered that the deepest source of inspiration is within.  Intense emotion impels one to its externalization.  I now sought means to accomplish this, and set out on the road to fashioning my own language.

Still today, if I think about it, real music emerges from the caldron of our emotions and human experiences, from the font of the imagination.  It would be easy to say that I love spending time in Italy, and that the landscape, the hill towns, the monuments are my inspiration.  It is more complicated.  Even a piece like Impressions of Venice is more than a description, a travelogue.  In each of its multiple sections, which granted are designated by titles like “Sunrise over St. Mark’s,” the music conveys my personal, emotional response not only to the site but to the human condition associated with it throughout time.  Scenes from Indian Country is more than a triptych depicting the topography of tribal lands in the Southwest (admittedly another area that I view with awe and where I love to spend time).  It rather presents an emotional landscape colored by sympathy for indigenous peoples and what they have endured, and admiration for their tenacity.  In virtually all cases, the primary motivating factor for me in executing a work is the fundamental human need to externalize emotion in musical form.

Perhaps I am defining inspiration as a manifold process instead of an isolated element.  Something to continue to ponder.  To the question of how I set out on a project, what my method might be, there is no single answer.  I have to feel my way into each different work; rarely do I write in linear order starting at the beginning and moving straight to the double bar; the amount of sketching and length of “gestation” period can vary greatly.  I remember when I was composing Wolf, which sets an excerpt from the poem by Peter Blue Cloud.  The text speaks of a wolf that has been maimed, it has only three legs, and is hiding in the shadows trying to dodge its pursuer.  To get into the right mode, I went out to the woods nearby and, using I suppose Stanislavski technique, got down on three limbs and limped around, panting, trying to find cover, acting out the part of the wolf.  On another occasion, I took to making glyphs on the walls of my studio, drawing diagrams and figures, with fragments of music here and there in different shades.  This was a step in getting the concept out of my head and onto a screen where I could quickly see the relationships between one thing and another regardless of how disparate.  I believe Leslie Marmon Silko does something like this before she writes – she paints large bands of color on the wall of her kiva studio for an hour before setting to work, to bring about the right frame of mind.  I saw her in an interview talking about this.  In my case it helped lead to a very successful final product compositionally, although it got me in trouble with my landlord, and probably set a bad example for the kids!  Generally I don’t have to resort to such extremes.  With most pieces, a certain “divining” takes place, where you let the accumulated material take you where it wants to go.  The moment of confidence that a piece is really on its way is when the “Eureka!”  experience occurs, and like Archimedes, I find the lever.  Suddenly I “know how it goes,” how everything will work out — the solution is in hand.  From there the uphill stage is over, and if you’re lucky, you just cruise to the end.  When you have the sensation that “the piece is writing itself,” it’s a joy.

Then, of course, there might be the urge (the “inspiration”?) to make revisions.  I’ve been asked about that from time to time as well, but will save the topic for a future post.