My son asked me, the other day, how I generate ideas for compositions. People often ask: “where do ideas come from?”. The simple answer is that nobody really knows. However, I do know how to keep them coming. And this involves engaging your inner Creator & Craftsperson.
From Impulse to Outcome
We have already talked about the need to flex your creative muscles on a regular basis. And how it is important not to stifle the creative flow. But how do we get from the initial impulse to a finished piece of work (whether in music or any other creative form)?
I would suggest that there exists within us all two distinct creative types: the creator and the craftsperson. One or other may be more dominant in each of us but I believe we can, with practice, harness the unique talents of both. The trick is to allow each the space to work to their optimum ability.
Time & Effort
This reminds me of the oft-cited quote that ‘composition is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. I may have misquoted that but you get the gist. The point is that creative inspiration can be fleeting, whereas the process of honing the original idea into something of value takes time and effort. But don’t let that put you off.
A few years ago, I set myself the challenge of creating a new piece of music every day. In the event, this became every working day, during school time (to fit with family and other commitments). Nonetheless, I did stick rigidly to that regime – regardless of my state of mind, health and spirit – for a whole year. And I did this with the help of my own inner creator & craftsperson…
In the evening (after putting my – then young – children to bed), I would sit at my keyboard and play the first thing that came to me. I would simply improvise until an idea took hold – or explore entirely free improvisation with no set parameters. My master keyboard is connected to my computer and I would record whatever came out.
Lack of Expectation
Normally I would use a piano sound for this, as it provides the opportunity to generate harmony, melody and rhythm all in one go. It is also an expressive and dynamic instrument and one on which I am not overly well-trained. This last point may seem odd but having a lack of expectation can aid the necessary ‘letting go’ that enables ideas to come freely.
Having found a motif, chord progression or soundscape that was pleasing, I would set about refining and learning this. Again, working at a computer means that it is possible to ‘cheat’ this process. I could play one segment at a time and overlay different parts or voices. During this stage I would tend to also find different sounds to suit the style of music emerging.
Knowing When to Stop
All of this would happen very quickly and uncritically. Often, I would reach a point at which I would start to lose may way or feel I was ‘over-cooking’ the ingredients. That would be time to stop for the night.
The next morning, I would return to what I had created. With fresh ears, I would invariably now be able to recognise what was working and what needed improvement. And now comes the crafting bit. This is when the creator needs to take a back seat and allow the craftsman to chip away at the rough draft until the polished work is revealed.
Review & Refine
Again, it is important to recognise at what point this process is complete. It is very easy to over-do the finessing until your creation becomes sanitised. My personal method is just to keep on reviewing, making incremental changes until nothing more leaps out as being ‘wrong’. In the case of these daily compositions, I may well return to one or other at a later stage and feel it needs something more (or less).
However, it is good discipline to move on. There is always something you feel could have been better. And this provides impetus for the next piece of work. And the next. And so on.
So, indulge your creator. Give him or her licence to express and throw some shapes/sounds/colours/words around. Then invite your crafts-person to make sense of the mess. But make sure each knows when it’s time to stop.