Usually in a recipe, the first thing you do is pre-heat the oven. This is not one of those recipes. There is no need to venture to the market to retrieve wild field mushrooms or Mongolian goat cheese. No, no. The only ingredient you’ll need for this recipe is an open mind and the expectation for the unknown. The below recipe depicts my creative process for the composition of a recently finished piano work, titled A wayward zephyr, in March of this year.
Step 1: Preheat the oven t-... - Okay so now that I'm being serious... These steps are ones that I have only walked myself once or twice. Composition for me is quite foreign and the act of putting musical thoughts onto paper is one of the more unorthodox things I’ve done in my musical escapades so far. Any musician is used to reading a note on a score, and then playing that note on their instrument. The task in going from point A to B is relatively straightforward. Intuitively, doing the reverse and going from point B to A should be as simple as playing a note, then writing it down, but I regret to inform you that it is not. Of course, you are able to write down whatever notes you want, but justifying why you have put them down is the part that begins turning the creative cogs and puzzling the most inventive minds.
Step 2: Your skeleton - Whilst it is tempting to go full speed ahead and start writing down ideas, creating the skeleton of your first composition is a key part of the compositional process. This allows you to look at the big picture and plan for what lies ahead. I often get caught up in minuscule and irrelevant musical ideas that don’t relate enough to the skeleton. Having a clear idea of your story and narrative allows your mind to run wild with ideas whilst not getting too sidetracked. I started out with a detailed skeleton for A wayward zephyr and within a few hours was already re-writing my structure and ignoring my well-thought-out narrative. This was an important lesson that leads us to step 3.
Step 3: Abandoning your skeleton - It is a risk to go against all of the previous structure you have established. By all means you may stick to it, but I’ve always believed in intuition and trusting yourself. If you’re forcing ideas to spring to life, or developing a motif against its will, then it’s time to take a step back and approach your work from a different angle. Remember those ‘irrelevant musical ideas that don’t relate enough to the skeleton’ ? You got caught up in these ideas for a reason. You were drawn to them, and since you are no longer constrained to your structure, rejoice! Rejoice in the concept of abandonment and different angles. You make the rules, and you’re most certainly allowed to break them.
Step 4: Developing your ideas - Once you are content with the direction you are going in, it is highly recommended that you write down any ideas that you have, even if they are nonsensical. They may not seem relevant at the moment, but I assure you, they will be viable for future use in your composition or other projects. Thinking in a linear frame of mind restricts your creativity and creates blockages that make it difficult to manoeuvre your narrative’s pathway. Putting too much thought into how you will get to the next step may cause more strife than you bargained for. Allow your mind to wander and allow yourself to explore what doesn’t work well, so you are led towards ideas that do point you in the right direction. I have found that you achieve quite a lot away from the piano. Sleeping, walking, eating: all of these things allow your subconscious to work away in the background while you focus on other tasks. The next time you return to your pencil and paper, seemingly out of thin air you will pluck ideas that fuel you to venture further and deeper into the unexplored possibilities of your composition.
Step 5: The dreaded, yet inevitable, road block - It sometimes comes out of the blue. It creeps up on you when you least expect it. It recognises that you’re in a rhythm, and it wraps itself around you, blocking your vision. The direction you were going in is now questioned and any efforts you make to justify moving forward are futile. This tap on your shoulder that contradicts your next move, sardonically whispering ‘really, that’s what you’re going to write next?’, is a necessary part of the compositional process. It allows you to review what you have already written and logically think about getting past this minor inconvenience. Embrace the awkwardness and the frustration! Ironically, in writing this step, I had major writer’s block. Poetic justice? No. Frustrating? Most certainly.
Step 6: Accepting your indecisiveness - Unsure whether you’re satisfied with the finished product? Are you still thinking about whether bar number 67 fits properly? These are all questions that chime the bells of indecisiveness and perfectionism. Musicians are known for meticulously spending hours upon hours on a single bar of music in amongst a sea of hundreds more. Perfecting your composition is sometimes a lifelong endeavour, but it shows your passion for being an artist of sound. Whatever imperfections lie in your cacophony of notes don’t hinder its quality. These imperfections make up your efforts and your willingness (or reluctancy) to be human. Leading up to the premiere performance of A wayward zephyr in the middle of March this year, I am still making changes and edits. It has gotten to the point where it is becoming an obsession. An obsession for change and an obsession for what is ‘right’ one day and ‘wrong’ the next are tell-tale signs of madness. (Really, I think every true musician is a little mad anyway.) Always leave a window open for change; you never know when you’ll need to climb through.
Step 7: The beginning - So, you now have your final product. A story told from beginning to end; a story that you have conjured up and put into more than just notes on a page. You started with a blank canvas and created a piece that mirrors your inner workings and thoughts as a musician. Being able to communicate through sound takes courage, conviction and determination. Embrace the emptiness of those unwritten bars and forgotten melodies. They will eventually all lead you to bigger and better things that form the beginnings of even the most sumptuous ideas.