Come and Knock On My Door

Come and Knock On My Door

I’m totally uninspired right now, but it’s my sworn duty to post something to this blog today, so I have to just buck up and do it. Okay, here we go with this week’s sweeping statement: I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on. Last night I was among those feeling the pressure to deliver, namely the visual arts graduate students at Hunter College who held their thesis exhibition opening. The event happens to attract a lot of attention in the local contemporary art scene; no pressure here guys.

Usually student work tends to be rather stylistically derivative of well-known established figures, but I only saw one Dana Schutz wannabe among the soon-to-be graduates—the rest were all quite original. As you can imagine, it must be hard to be a young visual artist faced with the fatal taboo of unoriginality in depicting, say, Campbell soup cans or Brillo boxes in your own work, only to site one example. But I have to say that we composers might even have a more difficult charge, and it boils down to romanticizing inspiration.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is riddled with stories about what inspired its famed leitmotif, and most have to do with big ideas verging on the meaning-of-life mantel. But what if those descending minor thirds were the result of bite marks left by a mutated chipmunk or a bowl of Cheerios? Is a piece of music somehow better if it has inspiration behind it? How much does the mythology surrounding said inspiration change public opinion of the piece? In the end, nobody except the artist who created the work is in a position to determine if something contains anything resembling inspiration in the first place.

Granted, my own musical work is inspired by things—but tangible things like the contours of coastlines, hairdos, etc.—not by highfalutin grandeur that only exists somewhere way beyond the clouds, the stuff which provides the lone possible explanation as to what makes figures like Beethoven so inarguably great. This is a spiritualized, over-exaggerated notion of how inspiration actually comes into play. Certainly, we shouldn’t be twiddling our thumbs waiting for fate to knock on our door here. Composing music isn’t always some fuzzy, mystical process, so why does the myth of the divine muse still hold sway over how people perceive the music? Doesn’t the fetishization of inspiration hurt the arts and the people who create it?

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14 thoughts on “Come and Knock On My Door

  1. pgblu

    Absolutely. I agree. Being precious about ‘inspiration’ does no one any good — it not only dampens productivity, but also creates an unnecessary mystique.

    Music composed without any apparent inspiration actually often sounds quite inspiring or even inspired…

    Which descending minor thirds are you referring to?

  2. randy

    Indeed that famous phrase includes both a major third and a minor third and I shouldn’t have favored one over the other—not to mention the rhythmic element, which might be the real star here…

  3. Chris Becker

    A few quotes…Randy, are you saying you never have had an experience with the transcendent in your creative work as a composer? Is it possible those times you feel you are not inspired are actually moments when your guard is down and you in fact channel some kind of creative work that you hadn’t realized previously?

    All three quotes below for me speak to the practical down to earth element of music making and that activities relation to the mystery of being alive.

    “Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”

    Ludwig van Beethoven

    “I honestly believe that the discipline of music science is our route to…whatever you wish to call it, God or the cosmics. If everything that everyone does is in some way connected to higher orders, then my decisions as a musician are by definition cosmic. If I can execute those decisions with still and thought and creativity, then I can communicate not just with an audience but with some higher order of being.”
    Anthony Braxton

    “Personally, I would say that artists tend to be closer to nature and closer to the creative part of the earth’s vibrations and tend to think in terms of the betterment of human beings. For me, the most important part of spirituality is not what you do, whether you are a mailman, a doctor, a lawyer, or a musician. It is how you live your life and what you do everyday. That is the real test of your spirituality.”
    William Parker

  4. randy

    Chris Becker asks: Are you saying you never have had an experience with the transcendent in your creative work as a composer?

    No. I have, but I don’t think those experiences were all that and a bag of chips. It’s all just part of the game, but a relatively unimportant part as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Chris Becker

    Well Randy, that’s a vague glib statement designed to bring more posts to your site…but whatever. Just thought I’d open the door a bit.

  6. jonrussell20

    The Creative Habit
    Has anyone read “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp? It has a lot of very good insights into this topic. She certainly does believe in inspiration, but places much more emphasis on just the simple day-in day-out good work habits – indeed, she sees these as a prerequisite to inspiration. One of my favorite of her quotes is (paraphrased, unless I happen to be remembering it exactly) “Good work habits are the nuts and bolts of dreaming”.

  7. Elaine Fine

    I do belive in inspiration, but the kind I believe in has a capital “IN,” because I believe the best musical work is work that comes from the depths of our unconscious and creeps up into reality as a result of being “called upon” like a memory.

    It is relatively easy to crank out music by the yard, but it is really special to be able to write something that INspires a performing musician to reach inwardly to express the unconscious or partially conscious feelings that happen as a result of the collaboration between a composer and a performer (and it even happens if the composer is the performer).

  8. tubatimberinger

    “The Muse That Sings” by Ann McCutchen is another excellent book on this subject. In it there are about 20 interviews with some of todays more well known composers including John Corigliano, John Adams and a bunch of other notables.

    “Wait for inspiration and it may never come!” – Yuji Takahashi

  9. Chris Becker

    It’s important to visit the well consistently. There are plenty of “composers” who never flex those muscles and as a result don’t really write a whole lot of music. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

    However, would everyone agree that it is equally important to sit still once in awhile and just wait? Doing nothing; Isn’t that sometimes a brave thing to do?

    Why mirror behaviors of the business world – the so-called “professionals” in our day to day creative work? “I get up at 8am everyday and compose till 5…” Whoopee. And your music probably sounds like it…

    Isn’t freeing ourselves from the shackles of the 9 to 5 the whole point of cultivating a creative life?

  10. mmcginn

    “I get up at 8am everyday and compose till 5…” Whoopee. And your music probably sounds like it…”

    So when do you work? Midnight to 6am? Oh, you’re such an ar-Teest!
    Obviously we have to have some time to work.

    “Isn’t freeing ourselves from the shackles of the 9 to 5 the whole point of cultivating a creative life?”

    I don’t know. Feldman and Ives were definitely connected/tied to this “professional” world for most of their lives. And their music is sure as hell creative.

  11. Chris Becker

    It may not be apparent from my post, but I do try to embrace several approaches to creating music. Sorry if my post seemed hostile!

    I’m really just trying to crack open this notion that we composers – in order to produce music – have to adopt a sort of 9 to 5 “professional” approach to creativity. I honestly walk the razors edge between being Mr. Time Management and a lifestyle more akin to that of a monk. And I’ve been living and working in NYC for nearly 10 years. Can someone out there relate to this?

    And there are plenty of wonderful and inspiring artists who did not produce work according to timelines or commission deadlines. They operate(d) in their own time and space.

    Finally (and this may sound defensive), if you think I’m an precious “arteest” (whatever) then visit my page on MySpace, listen to my music and read my resume before judging me… I’m a lot more down to earth than you might think…

  12. tubatimberinger

    Altered States
    My first and still most influential comp. teacher referred to composition as “an altered state of conciousness”. The trick of course is being able to seamlessly enter that state on command. Many refer to this (i’m not sure for what reason) as a very “hi level” of teaching but it is what he taught all of his students be they first year freshmen or DMA students. He had his tricks on how to get his student do this but basically, the more and more you write, the easier and easier it gets. After all, it comes down to a certain neural pathway being reinforced just like anything else we practice. I think alot of those who just make it a point to write for 8 hours a day (whatever ‘shift’ they prefer) work under the influence of this state(inspiration?) more often than they think and are probably unarware of it.


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