Many years ago, I had a discussion with a fellow composer regarding the creative process. We were both students in an electro-acoustic composition class, and there were two other students who were not composition majors. As far as we knew, they had never composed music before. The professor asked us if we had any advice for them.
I started by saying that composing music was a planned process, and that the structure of a piece should be mapped out before composing. This seemed to make sense to them.
My friend completely disagreed. He said that his process was random, chaotic, and that his initial ideas would determine or clarify the structure as he went along. He did not want to “force’ his ideas into a given structure. Over the years, I’ve reflected on this and concluded that we were both “right.” Here’s how:
My composition teacher (not the same professor for this class) said that the most terrifying thing for a composer was a blank page. This is not because we can’t think of anything, but the opposite: we think of everything, all at once. We see numerous possibilities. We could write a joyful piece. We could write a lament. We could compose something silly. We could compose something serious. We could tell the story of a reluctant young hero who rises to the occasion and defeats a terrible evil. We could write a piece with no particular story behind it at all. We could create something with elements of all, or none, of these things. The “decision paralysis” can be overwhelming. How does one break through it? How does one turn this waterfall of potential ideas into a coherent creation?
My friend simply stands beneath the waterfall with a bucket and catches a small amount of what falls. He looks inside and notices bits of dirt, pebbles, and even small living creatures, within the water. He begins with these things and shapes them to his liking, until he has a structured creation that he is happy with. He builds sandcastles out of the sediment. He builds mini-statues out of the pebbles. He populates his “city” with the living creatures.
I stand beneath the same waterfall with a set of specially-shaped pipes, buckets, and cups. The water flows into them in a predetermined pattern, almost like a Rube Goldberg machine. As I observe the result, I notice bits of sediment in places where I did not plan them. I notice pebbles stuck in corners and crevices. I notice some of the pipes leaking, or maybe even the entire structure struggling to maintain its shape. With each “leak,” I have several options:
- Keep everything as it is, though the structure is clearly flawed. (“Muscle” the ideas into the structure, even if they do not entirely work. The project will be complete, but the result may appear insincere or “manufactured,” thereby not affecting the audience. This can be a disadvantage of constantly working under tight deadlines: the creative process tends to leave behind these sorts of problems, and tight deadlines leave little or no time for fixing them.)
- Preserve the structure by fixing the leak. (Delete musical ideas or elements that have nothing to do with the larger narrative, or do not serve a clear purpose. The result will probably be “lean” and easy for an audience to follow, but may also lack spontaneity or be too predictable.)
- Preserve the leak by creating another pipe around it, allowing it to continue to flow. (Change the structure of the piece so that the new idea makes sense. However, this may necessitate adding more structure, or more ideas, elsewhere. One may have to foreshadow the idea in another place, or even rewrite the entire composition, for the ideas to work. This begs the question, “Is this idea worthy of such effort?” Incidentally, this is why many artists speak of needing to get rid of their favorite elements of a project. Other times, leaving a “nonconforming” idea in can cause a piece to be too complicated and impossible for an audience to follow so that they don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t moved by it and can’t remember it and it doesn’t communicate at all, kind of like this run-on sentence.)
What’s the Plan?
How does an artist determine whether or not to begin with a structure in mind? It seems to come down to personal preference. I have tried both approaches, and had more success when using a predetermined structure (even if I change it later). If I begin without an understanding of the structure, I end up sketching randomly and getting no ideas that I am happy with. If I somehow finish a project this way, it often takes a long time, causes massive frustration, and ends up as a rambling mess. I stood below the waterfall without my pipes, and all I got was wet.
Others find that beginning with a structure is too restrictive. They stand below the waterfall with buckets and pipes, and find that no water flows at all. The pipes are too narrow to catch anything the artist likes.
Yet others find that a hybrid approach is effective. They start with a structure (or only a partial one) and allow their initial ideas to flow. The structure simply focuses their creativity enough to break the decision paralysis. Once they have their initial ideas, they use a less structured approach to develop them. I find that this resembles my current process.
My Creative Process
Let’s say I’m composing a theme for a heroic character. I might write down words or phrases that describe his mental state. What is he hoping to accomplish? What does he fear? What sort of movie scene would quintessentially depict him? Taken together, these thoughts help me to “get in character” as an actor might. I am, in a sense, exploring the character’s world. As I do this, themes, rhythms, colors, fragments, and other musical ideas will appear, as though my mind is improvising a soundtrack to the scene. The structure of the scene usually determines the structure of the piece. In this way, the structure is more “discovered” than planned. From there, the composition process involves transcribing the most salient ideas, and then editing and organizing them so that they make sense by themselves. One could even see this as a process of translating the scene from one language to another: from sight to music. (I find the act of writing a story scene to be similar, except that I am translating the images and emotions into words instead of music.)
Ironically, this blog post was written without any real plan. I simply remembered the discussion (more or less) and began to puzzle it out. After getting some initial ideas, I wrote them down using much the same structure you see now. Once it was finished, I did some quick editing. Perhaps this illustrates one of my composition teacher’s most important points: rigid adherence to a procedure for its own sake is not a good idea. Structures, procedures, and techniques are meant to serve the artist, not to be served by him. As the great composer Claude Debussy said, “Great art makes rules. Rules do not make great art.”
- How would you describe your creative process? Has it changed, or has it remained the same?
- What inspires your best work? How did you discover this?
- Have you ever had a discussion like this with another artist? Did you differ on any points?