Thinking about inspiration

May 19, 2010

sweatin itYesterday in a class devoted to a quick overview of Olivier Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” I went off about composerly “inspiration.” In the case of Messaien, he was inspired by his deep religious views, his love of rhythm, color, modes, textures, and birds.

I asked the class “Is there anything that jumps out of the music saying I AM SACRED!”? Or if another artist shoots up heroin, is his music DRUG MUSIC? And if a composer chooses to compose using one of the many systems popular in the last 100 years, should this music be less musical because its author used a system?”

Artists all face the terror of the blank canvas as they start a new work. We all do different things to get the juices flowing (I’ll focus on composers). They might decide to compose something in sonata form; they decide to compose a composition for one of the many pre-existing ensembles (orchestra, string quartet, piano concerto, etc.); or they have a commission to compose something very specific (film, ringtones, video game music); or they might be inspired by a painting, or a poem, or a story, or a religious concept, or a mathematical procedure, or a challenge. They might work out before composing, or smoke a cigarette or cigar; or smoke a joint, or get drunk, or shoot up something; or have wild anonymous sex; or they might go to mass, or work in the garden, or read a book, or meditate. There might even be someone who takes a baseball bat and smashes a tree. Some will dress up in kinky clothes. Some burn incense. Some only compose late at night, and some only in the early morning. Many times you have to just roll up your sleeves and work, not having time to wait for “inspiration.”

Composers all do different things to get their music out. I need to be careful about glorifying or favoring one method over another as we are all different in our work methods and personalities. Tell students that composers use all these techniques, but all that matters in the long run is the final product.

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