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Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Inspiration?

Okay, inspiration. Let's start with a saying I've heard before and really like: composing is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. Now, what that means is that composing is almost all hard work, and just a little bit of inspiration. I think a lot of people think that composing is all inspiration (or more than it really is) because of how we experience music. When we pick up a copy of a masterpiece, like a Beethoven String Quartet (let's say, the one with the Grand Fugue in it, although I'm certainly no expert on LVB so I don't know which it is,) all we see is the finished product: perfect and immaculate, every note in its right place and having a purpose, without which the whole thing would fall apart. It seems like it all came out in one fell swoop of inspiration and love-making with the muse. What we don't see are the pages and pages of complete rewrites, edits, revisions, etc., that were a vital stepping stone on the path to the complete product. If you look at a Beethoven manuscript (where one is really able to feel the agony of the creative process... mangled pages, blotches of ink everywhere, written so quickly it's hardly legible,) you'll see that sometimes he begins with just an awful, banal idea. Then, after a little tweak here, and a little tweak there, repeated over and over (and over,) you're left with an amazing melody like that from the ode to joy (again, no expert, I forget which piece that's from.)  In my own work, I must be constantly reminding myself that even if I throw out a whole section of work that I worked on for hours and hours, I still have made progress. Why? Because I had to go down that path to realize it wasn't the right one. This makes my idea of what I'm looking for sharper and clearer, and focuses my ear for what I'm looking for.

"But!" You say, "What about someone like Mozart! Certainly, he was at one with the muse, a man who wrote no less than 41 symphonies by the time he died at the young age of 33!" (Not to mention the days of other music that he composed.) Well, let's think about that. First, Mozart, by his sister's account, started practicing at the piano by the time he was 4. Second, his earlier works are, certainly, of a lesser degree of quality then his other works. Consider the idea that Levine espouses in "This Is Your Brain On Music", as well as others, like Malcolm Gladwell. Apparently, 10,000 hours is a pretty reasonable estimate for how much you must practice before you become a master at something. I'll leave it to them for the evidence, and trust you to just go with me on this one. If Mozart was an extremely, incredibly hardworker, it is possible to see by calculation that he came up with those 10,000 hours by a very young age. This would explain his amazing output by hard work then and not inspiration. In fact, if you go and look at any of the composers who are remembered today (Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach, to name some of the biggest,) they were all extremely hard workers. It's amazing and inspiring, really. Once I figured out that being a good composer was more a function of being a hard worker than having some unquantifiable, God-given attribute, I was set!

But if you want to talk about inspiration as the thing that instead is inspiring you to keep going, gives you that fire in the belly, then that's something else. Look, I'm not surprised your high school fugue wasn't good. Who can get really passionate about a high school fugue?!? It's hard to do so. One of the first things a young composer must do in their maturation process is find something to write about that they really, really, really care about. I mean, love-with-your-whole-heart care about. For a lot of people (including myself), this means involving material that is connected to some part of your history, whether it's your ethnic, racial, religious, or personal history. For instance, think of all the "folk" composers (there's practically one for every country): Bartok for Hungary, Dvorak/Janacek/others-I-can't-remember for Czechoslovakia, Stravinsky/Rimsky-Korsakov/Tchaikovsky/so many others for Russia, Vaughn Williams/Britten for England, ah the list goes on and on, we could do this all day. They all had a tremendous love for their country, and were inspired by that to write really great music. Religion really got people going for practically everyone you've heard of before the 20th century practically about (Bach especially, as just one case, and a pretty darn good one at that.) As for me, I'm Catholic, so right now I'm writing a requiem mass. I have plans to write a setting of some original miner songs from mining areas, because that's where my mom's family is from. To a young composer, I would say, think about where you and your family are from, then go find some text (poetry, a play, etc.) that connects to that, and set it to music! Then, the ideas will really come. For me, writing pure music with no words, or not trying to evoke a scene, is very difficult; I'm just not sure what I want to say, or what emotion I what to convey. But text bridges that gap and makes it easier for me (and others, I suspect.)

And if you really love it, then you'll work on it as much as you can; and then, at the end of the day, when your mind is just so completely garbled from being so intently focused on finding that next just right note, or next just right rhythm, that you can barely get a single coherent thought through your head, music will still be there to be listened to and to let you know everything is more than fine, it's great. And that's all you can really ever ask of music.


  1. I would really love to see some of your work. And if you ever need a baritone/tenor voice for a piece you're writing, hit me up!

  2. I want you to know that I actually read some of your posts. And I actually found this one to very interesting. That is all.

  3. "In my own work, I must be constantly reminding myself that even if I throw out a whole section of work that I worked on for hours and hours, I still have made progress. Why? Because I had to go down that path to realize it wasn't the right one."

    Great point. I constantly find that in my own work, education, that long hours of hard work will go into teaching literacy or math a certain way. Often times it can be successful, but afterwards I will realize either through my own reflection or a colleague's that there is an easier/more efficient way to teach that concept. I wonder if that is similar to what you describe? If you intend to create a certain effect through your music and work very hard at it, but afterwards sometimes find that there are easier ways to accomplish the same thing?

    I'm interested to know how much team effort ever goes into composing? Is it a mainly solitary practice? Or do people often use a colleague's advice to help?

    Great blog. Keep it up!!