Analyzing the A-Ha!

Analyzing the A-Ha!

As I’m entering the first phases of a new piece, I’m thinking about the role of inspiration in my compositional process. On the face of it, this sounds like an extraordinarily mystificatory and large-R Romantic thing for a composer to consider, and not at all the kind of word that a 21st-century artist of critical bent should be worried about. But I don’t know what else to call it when a sudden insight allows me to think about what I’m working on in a viable way. It’s not as if I hear the Muse humming material in my ear, nor is it that I have an aerial view of the shape of the whole piece at once. Usually it’s just a new way to articulate a distinction. (My music is at least 75% about the variously clear or unclear articulations of sundry distinctions, so these lightning bolts are actually very valuable to me!)

Please don’t think I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth here, but I’m curious to know what this light bulb sensation really is. If you don’t buy the notion that a divine wind is blowing into you (which I don’t), I guess it’s a question for the cognitive scientists; all that’s left for us to figure out is how to achieve these moments as regularly as we can. My Better Half suggests that, like luck, inspiration is the product of preparation and opportunity: Some external stimulus causes us to reorder information we already have in a meaningful way.

Viewed from this angle, it seems almost simple: First, have lots of preparation—know the problem of your music inside and out. Second, put yourself in situations that will expose you to new ways of thinking, and not just new ways of thinking about music. (As Joji Yuasa once said, for a musician to know a lot about music is unremarkable; make it your business to encounter a variety of disciplines and worldviews.) Finally, shake well. Allow these mental components to arrange themselves in a variety of dispositions. Hopefully something illuminating will happen. I wish I had a more reliable method, but for now, this’ll have to do.


Head over to this week to apprehend the true nature of Jeremy Wagner. Jeremy’s Dyspnoea, played here by Irvine Arditti, is a tour de force; it’s easily one of my favorite new pieces I heard last year. I won’t sell it any harder than that because the piece doesn’t need me to! Do give a listen to Jeremy’s interview as well: It’s maybe the heaviest interview we’ve done, getting to the hearts of various matters.

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3 thoughts on “Analyzing the A-Ha!

  1. jimaltieri

    Inspiration in the sciences is most important in “hypothesis generation.” It is the least-taught part of the scientific method, mostly because people aren’t sure how to teach it. In studies like this, though, findings suggest that just by forcing hypothesis generation rather than being given it trains the brain for hypothesis generation in the future.
    To carry back this idea into composition, one could suggest that maintaining a discipline of frequent writing eases the process of getting “inspired” and in fact might show that inspiration is something that can be developed through practice just like any other skill.
    So, in the words of my old mentor H. Projansky, “Get back to work!”

  2. davidwolfson

    I’ve always thought that the sudden moments of inspiration—particularly the ones that follow hours/days/weeks of banging one’s head against the wall—were simply the result of subconscious processes that finally finished, and sent their results upstairs. Those times when you can’t bear to compose, and find any excuse to do anything rather than sit down and concentrate? You’re actually working as hard as you can.

    David Wolfson

  3. The Real Deal

    Only frustrated intellectuals would propose to honestly examine a subject in the spirit of embracing the scientific method, and by decree, eliminate any possible outcomes that might challenge the non-belief “belief” system held by a few. Those that long for human-centric answers to mysteries of this nature should redirect their attentions to the vastness of the universe where human activity has no impact. It might become apparent that there is far more to consider than the time we will have with which to consider.

    Making this a further embarrassment is that the phenomenon being studied is that of inspiration.

    Go back to work and compose music that inspires. Then ask the listener what made it happen.


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