A composer gets asked how they compose. It is one of those inevitable facts of life. Unfortunately the questioner is never really asking “how” one composes, though. That, in and of itself, may be answerable and thus a sigh of relief would come to the composer, followed by a tedious relation of their style and/or craft. But…the truth is, the question is usually really about what happens “before” the composer composes. What is the composer listening to when she throws her ear to the sky, or closes his eyes to hear the previously unknown. It is a strange, mysterious land filled with clouds and shadows.
Is there a muse?
Whenever I am asked this question, I usually fumble about and struggle to really capture something that would be considered sensible, or understandable to the compositional layperson. In the right group of people, I’ve even said the words, “I’m guessing, for the most part.” Now, ok, that’s not true, but I have to admit sometimes it feels that way. I find it just a little bit consoling to know my predecessors have felt this in their own fashion.
Here is a very, very interesting look at Arvo Pärt, who is describing just a single phrase of his Für Alina. I chuckle sometimes, because of how he is enraptured even by single notes! I know this feeling sometimes … well, take a look and watch his face, his hands, and listen to his voice. This is a composer at work!
Such a beautiful vision:
…so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.
A great joy here is that only Arvo Pärt composes like Arvo Pärt. What a sigh of relief! Certainly many composers take as much painful care as he does. Certainly many composers tightly tie metaphysics to the sounds. Certainly many composers are consummate craftsmen. But thank goodness for voice, and style and subtleties of ear, desire, and longing.
I recently came across some of the interviews Arthur Abell gave between 1890 and 1917 with composers. Here are a few selections on their ideas regarding this idea (from Talks with Great Composers).
“We composers are projectors of the infinite into the finite.” – Edvard Grieg
“My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams.” – Max Bruch
“There are other was of communing with God besides attending Mass and confessions. When I am composing I feel that He is close to me and approves of what I am doing.” – Giacomo Puccini
“I have very definite impressions while in that trance-like condition, which is the prerequisite of all true creative effort. I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity to do so.” – Richard Wagner.
“When in my most inspired moods, I have definite compelling visions, involving a higher selfhood. I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed.” – Richard Strauss
“When I compose, I feel that I am appropriating that same spirit to which Jesus so often referred.” – Johannes Brahms.
Here is another compelling quote, given by Elliot Carter, when accepting the 1983 Edward McDowell medal.
“I have a feeling that somehow there are these shadowy things behind me, these compositions, which are in a way not me, myself; really, they deserve the medal and not me.
They have this strange life; I’m not sure that I invented them. These strange beings began to come to mind and gradually somehow insisted on being written in their strange and unusual way, difficult to some people, and profoundly exciting to others. I was just sort of something that wrote them down, because they were telling me they had to be done this way and they were rather trying and sometimes difficult and demanding. And sometimes they did things I have never done before and made me do things that bothered me and upset me and sometimes excited me – and puzzled me, too, sometimes.”
The words I relate to the most are these:
“I was just sort of something that wrote them down, because they were telling me they had to be done this way….”
I know this feeling so well. So the muse is not so obvious. It is shady and often indescribable. Blathering about obscurities seems to be the best way to describe the process of music inspiration and transfiguration. For the most part, I share much in common with the quote from Brahms above, and agree fully with his intent. But to explain it beyond this glimmer, this shadow, this murkiness …. maybe it will always be asking too much.
It takes a ‘pure fool’ to penetrate the fogs of reductionist scholarship and perceive the miracle which is there for all to see.