Gee, it’s Wednesday night and time for me to send in my latest weekly column for NewMusicBox. And I haven’t a clue what to write about.

I need a little inspiration. Maybe I’ll sharpen my virtual pencils, move some items around on my desk, and sit and wait for the light bulb to turn on.

OK, here I am.



This has happened to all of us, I’m sure, at one time or another. A school assignment where you can’t even decide what the topic should be, or a newsletter article, or perhaps most relevantly: that commission. That commission! Dammit—the players are hoping to get their parts real soon (a.k.a. now), and you haven’t the slightest idea what you want to do. Your mind flips between absolute blank and stretching for an idea that, when it comes, just inevitably seems lame. So you’ve been hoping and maybe praying for a visit from a muse. As of the present, none have even dropped by to say hi or borrow five bucks. You’re in trouble. Whether you believe inspiration is a divine frenzy, as Plato did, or from a political unconscious, à la Jameson, the fact of the matter is: It doesn’t come with an “on” switch.

We can be trained in almost anything, but inspiration is independent of technique. Isn’t there something wrong when an artist, who in principle should rely totally on inspiration, has to deliver “product,” be it a portrait or a film screenplay or a sonata, by date certain? Still, that’s reality. As Michael Corleone said to Hyman Roth, “This is the life we have chosen!” While we can’t expect to have brilliant Eureka! moments every time we sit down to create something, when we are called upon to create something as professionals, we should create something, and it should hopefully be something worthwhile.

So, what do you do when, Edison’s formula of genius being one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, you’re still short that one percent? When deadlines attack, a feeling of desperation can couple with frustration, and soon one can feel overwhelmed. It’s necessary to try to break out of such cycles.

And that’s my question. What do you do? What techniques are there among you Chatterers that get the juices flowing and that compositional ball rolling? Not necessarily producing a Eureka! moment, just getting you off the ground. In my case, sitting at my desk straining and squirming is completely counter-productive, and I suspect this is the same for a lot of people. But the proverbial walk around the block, which some people swear by, doesn’t usually get results for me. One acquaintance actually suggested listening to someone else’s music, which when I’m (in principle) composing but coming up empty, is the last thing I want to do. Another friend, pretty much a radical experimentalist whose work eschews all traditional notions of harmony and rhythm, told me that she finds it a useful trigger somehow to listen to something from an earlier period, say Hopkinson Smith playing on the theorbo. Who would have thought? Generally speaking, I find that a lot of people have tricks and tips for jogging their medullary neurons. One of my colleagues here in Japan said that he likes to take a break and watch a film. He has found that somehow loosens him up. Someone else said something about omelets.

How about you? I’m quite interested to get your advice. Because I need your help. I have a column to write.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

9 thoughts on “Meta-NoNotes

  1. vladimir smirnov

    explore other music. Do a lot of listening. One of the biggest inspirations for me to write is a great work by someone else.
    Also, as Tom mentioned, stealing. Though stealing from yourself is usually better than stealing from someone else.

  2. Chris Becker

    Following the theme of the first two posts…I’ve found that trying to transcribe music for which Western notation is woefully inadequate (ie Appalachian a capella singing and lately – pygmy singing from Central Africa) has been very inspiring as well as educational…

    Also, just doing an arrangement of another composers work can spark ideas or teach you techniques you might not have discovered otherwise…

    I also try to remember that I’m always composing…even if I’m cleaning the shower or cooking a meal or doing any other “non-musical” activity. I think there is a part of my brain that is gathering data and spinning it for later use when the time is right.

    We register so many things on a near subconscious level throughout the day that our music often translates into the language of dreams. We think we know what we’re trying to say, but something else altogether comes out in the process…

  3. mmcginn

    I think there’s a quote by Lou Harrison where he says, to the effect that, when he felt inspired he put down the pen(cil) because he would regret it the next morning.

    Feldman says, rather said, the ideas are born in the waiting.

  4. teresa

    Eat, drink, and carry on with outrageous behavior until you feel so guilty you have to get back to work…

    This usually works for me, but then…. I am just a performer : )

  5. mdwcomposer

    Or distract yourself by whatever behavior to the point where you genuinely miss it.
    [ just a performer indeed, Teresa – hardly lets you off the hook for needing inspiration and motivation]


    I sometimes improvise just to start thinking in music

    Look at my past piece or three and decide I’m going to not do what they did. Even figuring out the “not” can be inspirational

    — Mark Winges

  6. teresa

    Yes, that’s true Mark–I do need inspiration AND motivation to practice… but at least I don’t have to make up the notes on the page (well, most of the time… : )

    Some people set aside a time every day (every morning from 8-Noon say) for work and churn out notes on a page or practice what ever needs to get done. I’ve never been able to do that. In fact, the only regular schedule I can keep is my class teaching schedule. I guess I really hate too much routine.

    However, I will say that I work better with a deadline. There’s nothing like the fear of embarrassing myself on stage to motivate me to practice.

    And as I write this, I am thinking “I really need to practice”… ( so many notes, so little time….)


  7. MikeShanley

    For me, the best way to come up with an idea is to just imagine the most far-out and alien music that I can, and then work on creating it. The further out into the ether, the better. I’ve never had writer’s block in my life and the best part is that you’ll never run out of ideas… because they’re infinite!

    I also find that keeping in touch with old ideas that you never got around to helps a lot. So many times, just from the occasional glance through my notes, a seedling of an idea will blossom. Sometimes a certain idea just needs more time in the soil of your brain.

    Also, never expecting to do anything the same way you did it before. Any attempt I’ve ever seen of ANY ARTIST to do what-they-did-before has resulted in failure. Instead, just find something that you haven’t ever tried before and see how you can use it to try something new. That way, every single piece of work has that scent of freshness! Don’t ever feel restrained by your ‘style’. The things that make you unique will shine through no matter how radical the material.


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