Inspiration can come from weird and wonderful places

Are you stumped for inspiration? That’s just human, but because you are human, you have a ready-made box full of inspiration in your head. How to access it and what to do with it is the question. I recently completed a collection of compositions that share the theme of heat. It’s called Thermós, and, until now, I had not actually put this fact into words. But writing liner and preproduction notes for an album makes you think about what it sounds like, and what it is about.

I meant the music to express what I know and remember about remote places, arid, dry regions, and deserts – as opposed to the previous album which was about water. What I know about deserts and so on, comes from books and poems that I’ve read, and music, films, paintings, and photographs of places like the Sahara Desert, the Empty Quarter (there’s a link to the song about this, below), the Gobi, the Kalahari, Tibet, Central Asia, etc., the history of those places, and the people who live there. I suppose amongst all that is a fair amount of clichés, legends, and stereotypes.

Talk about a mixed bag of ideas

When I was putting together the preproduction notes for the songs – the notes about what a piece consists of and how it was created – I realized that my memories and references are really wildly diverse. They include Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) as a very fey, slightly mad English officer; ENYA’s lyrics for her song Pilgrim, via Chilly Gonzales; the Metal/throat-singing Mongolian band The Hu; the music of famed Iranian composer-musician Mohammad-Reza Shajarian; the poems in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; the travels of Marco Polo through Central Asia to the court of Kublai Khan, and even Hergé’s children’s comic book, Tintin in Tibet.

Medieval illustration of the travels of Marco Polo. Apparently, he was a bit of a fabulist, but recent studies have shown that much of what he wrote in his bookThe Travels of Marco Polo (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, c. 1300), was true.
The translation by Edward Fitzgerald of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” – probably the best known one and the version that’s most often quoted.

The Sound track of your life

The music that you remember is also the music that has special meaning just for you, accumulated throughout your life. So the expression “the soundtrack of your life” really is that – a soundtrack. Apart from the ones I listed above, the musicians, composers, bands and producers that connected me to this theme (and from who I learned) are a hodge-podge of styles, instruments and genres:

  • Deadmau5
  • Armin van Buuren
  • Mohammad-Reza Shajarian – Iranian (1940 – 2020)
  • Isaac Albéniz, Spanish (1860 – 1909)
  • Chilly Gonzales – Canadian, real name Jason Beck
  • Franz Schubert (particularly his Notturno for piano, cello and violin, in E Flat, D. 897)
  • Bert Kaempfert – German composer and band leader (1950s – 1970s), and the trumpet section on his hit, “A Swinging Safari”
  • The HU – Mongolian Rock band
  • YĪN YĪN – Dutch band – Fusion of funk, psych, disco and traditional Southeast Asian music
  • Huun-Huur-Tu – Tuvan Throat Singers
  • Kongar-ol Ondar – Tuvan Throat Singer (1962 – 2013)
  • Carlos Santana! (Guitar)

All of what’s in your Mister Potato Head Bin

Yes, I know, the stuff that gets stuck in your head is utterly weird – like dreams that you never forget.

I’d been carrying those odds and ends about exotic, far-flung and hot regions of the world in my mind for decades – part historical fact, part clichés and part movie lore. DJ and producer Deadmau5 calls it your “Mister Potato Head Bin” – that place, mentally or physically, where you put all the ideas you might down the road.

Somehow they must’ve popped into my consciousness, because how else could I have ended up writing for instruments like the Mongolian morin khuur, the Persian/Iranian Santoor, the Turkish Saz Zither and Saz Lute, the Flamenco Guitar, and of course the Arabic Oud – and a grand piano? Luckily, I discovered a term “World Fusion” which means music in which styles from different cultures and regions have been fused together. Because it is indeed, a fusion.

Relax and let the inspiration hit you

There are many studies and models about what creativity is, the role of inspiration plays in creating new things, and precisely how it happens in your brain. A 2003 study states that:

“…the process of being inspired by is prompted by the emergence of creative ideas in consciousness, often during a moment of insight. Under optimal conditions (e.g., if the idea is actionable, and the person has the capacity for approach motivation), the process of being inspired by gives way to the process of being inspired to, which motivates action.”

The reference for the quote is at the end of the post. There’s a lot more to this, but basically, you get the inspiration but then you have to do something with it, in other words, the perspiration part, ha-ha. Otherwise you just sit there and admire the thought and nothing comes of it.

The point is, that if you let yourself relax, forget about conventions and restrictions and other people’s expectations, the things in the Mr. Potato Head Bin in your mind will emerge, and you will create something that is uniquely yours and that expresses what you want to say. Afterwards, you get to spend weeks and months fixing it all up and torturing yourself about the quality of your product. (I’m just slightly joking.)

Which led to a poem

When I finished the liner notes, I was so tired that I was just sitting in a daze in front of my computer and these words – Ancient Greek and Latin terms that I had used – came into my head, and me being me, I made a line with them, and then a rhyme, and so on. And that became a poem about the album. It did not, after the fact, become lyrics for any of the pieces on the album – but that may be a future option.

brown sand


by Marthe Bijman

Thermós and aqua, terra and solis –
all that is desert and none that give solace;
waves not of water but sand in an ocean
that flows in a swirl of Brownian motion;

whispers of voices as though the wind speaks,
echoes of music from faraway peaks,
dust swirls from tracks across arid chasms,
unreal horizons with verdant phantasms –

And the sun casts its rays like a god on a throne
with the power of thermós, aqua, terra and stone.

“Thermós”, (“θερμός”) in Ancient Greek means “warm” or “hot”. Aqua is latin for water, terra is Latin for earth and solis is Latin for the sun.

I have to say, writing this was much, much easier than writing the music, and much, much easier than writing lyrics.

Line by line, the images in the poem refer to the tracks or songs on the album. One track is about the desert called “The Empty Quarter”. Another is called “Meditation” which has chants in it like those that I imagine might come from a retreat in remote mountains. There is a track called “Silk Road”, about travellers in a caravan crossing dusty Central Asian plains the way Marco Polo did, and another called “Chimera” about being fooled by desert mirages. “Echoes of music” refers to a track called “Granada” which is in the style of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz.

As to the structure: it’s two quatrains and a couplet, which makes it a Keatsian Ode, if you want to fit it into a category. (“Keatsian” after the English poet, John Keats.) A Keatsian Ode has three verses, ten lines, and a rhyme scheme of: abab/cdec/de. Tah-dah!

The process of turning inspiration into action, and something in a specific form is definitely the hard part of creating something new.

(Above) Link to the track on the album called “The Empty Quarter”. Rushing in where angels fear to tread, I based the melody and all the instrumental parts on a variation of the C Phrygian dominant scale, which is common in Middle Eastern, Arabic, Flamenco and Spanish classical music.

*Study source

The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities, Victoria C. Oleynick, Todd M. Thrash*, Michael C. LeFew, Emil G. Moldovan and Paul D. Kieffaber, Department of Psychology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA. Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 25, 2014. Retrieved April 20, 2022

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