I read this interesting article written by the American contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly on how he actually composes on a day to day basis. His work involves a great deal of travel, which can fragment concentration fairly quickly, but he also has to manage several projects at once, responding to commissions and their deadlines. While the commission is the 'prompt', first he starts by mapping out his as-yet-unwritten piece's 'emotional itinerary' to give his audience something 'challenging, engaging and emotionally alluring' to 'create an environment that suggests motion but that doesn't insist on certain things being felt at certain times'. He likens this plan to an inflight map which cycles between the overview (say London to Singapore) but then gives you the hyper detail of small towns of whatever country you happen to be over. Once he's got the map-document, it can 'be coloured in and detailed whenever you like'. But, fyi, this initial map or plan by design excludes the actual musical notes. His example was for a viola concerto he wrote which went like this:
*Start with a familiar set of chords - a sort of musical home base
*Then travel as far away from that as possible through rhythmic turbulence
*Find the way back via a sense of music panic.
Then comes in depth research, and then comes the notes and rhythms. What he wants is to create an emotional and sonic architecture that gives listeners 'simultaneous but radically different experiences.'
The map-document might be on a table napkin or in a text but that, and all his research notes and whatever, go into a physical folder - a very specific type - three-flap folder that French school children use. On the top, inside each project folder is the original 'map'. There are computer equivalents but the visible slim folders accompany him everywhere around the world and act as immediate triggers to reflect on each project, generating ideas whenever, wherever. They're part of his response to what he call a 'certain poetry of discontinuity' meaning his focus is on the work, rather than the (his) constantly changing environment.
What I loved about this article is how specific this composer is about his process - it's definitely his own brand of physical and digital creation and storage, which deals with his own schedule, his artistic strengths and weaknesses. It reduces the amount of reinventing the wheel every time he needs to write music - there's no starting from ground zero, but most importantly, it defeats an important myth - the myth of the scattered genius artist, the 'wait-around-for-inspiration-to-hit' artist and the 'I'll-do-it-when' artist (when I'm not so tired, not so heartbroken, not so broke, not so busy etc etc ). It negates the myth that real artists aren't 'organised' or 'business-like' or 'good with technology'.
This guy has planks in place to keep his music coming and growing and getting performance ready, despite his real life with all the dull and exciting demands it can have. He has a system that supports him, one that is bespoke, one that he has tailor-made so he doesn't waste precious brain space needed to make the good stuff up.
What can you do to 'systemise' your songwriting so you can be more creative, when you want to be or need to be?
Would love to hear your thoughts.
ps Thanks to those who've booked for Songwriters Retreat 2019 at Akaroa. Excited to announce early bird ticket prices are staying open until 31 January 2019. Look forward to seeing you there!
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.