Contending with the challenge of creating music in context

People tell me that you can get inspiration from anywhere – in your imagination, from what you know, from what’s around you, or people. David Byrne (he of Talking Heads) writes in the opening lines of his book How Music Works, that, actually, the music we create does not necessarily come from some internal source of inspiration:

“I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upswelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen.
…I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”

How Music Works, by David Byrne, Todo Mundo Ltd., 2017, p. 1

(Above, left to right) David Byrne, March 13, 2022 (aged 70), image: The Guardian UK; How Music Works, by David Byrne, Todo Mundo Ltd., 2017, pp. 384; David Byrne in Talking Heads, 1978 (image: Wikipedia).

If you think that belies how you yourself produce music, or how you have experienced the process, you should read his book. He writes eloquently, and explains with excellent examples. He presents compelling arguments that support his thesis that music is often made to fit pre-existing formats, and that music is created more because of context and circumstance than because of an inner creative impulse.

After I had read it, I understood a comment by the marketing expert, Seth Godin, who wrote in a blog post that all people who have a creative output need two kinds of useful help:

“The first kind, the common kind, is when someone helps you with advice or labor to accomplish what you’ve already set out to do. The second kind, more rare and more useful, is when someone helps you realize that your original plan wasn’t as good as you thought it was, and helps you come up with a better one. Which kind are you looking for?” (TWO KINDS OF USEFUL HELP)

I think what Godin means here is that second kind of help, the more useful kind, is about the what of creative process – What are you planning to do? What are you going to do? The first kind of help is about the how – How are you going to do what you have already decided to do? It’s first the what, then the how.

The second kind of help, on your plan and your objective, becomes really important when what you want to create comes from a specific context, and has to fit a pre-existing format. That drive, or feeling of a creative impulse, can lead you down some seriously weird rabbit-holes where the outcome is simply incompatible with anything that fits a format or context.

You may ask, and so what?

The answer is, the world. You’re in the world. Nothing is created out of air. All things have to exist, to live, to be seen and heard in the real world, which has context, which has forms and norms that give meaning.

I learned this the hard way. If someone had given me the second kind of help, I would probably not have got myself into an enormous, impossible challenge of wanting to compose something that combines the forms of a Trance track and a classical sonata. In mitigation, I admit that I am self-taught, and that my knowledge of classic music theory is negligible.

A questionable idea

But I did. Both forms are, of course, pre-existing. The combination isn’t that common. Why did I try to consciously do this? It took literally months to create. I was sitting there thinking of the core tune of the songs on the album Armin2016. At that point they all contained some “memory” of a series of notes:

The basic theme of the songs on Armin2016

I had realized, not long before, that to produce a collection of music for an album, rather than disparate songs, you have to have repeated elements – a core melody, the same key, or the same tempo, or the same instruments. The same thing applies if you’re a DJ putting together tracks for a performance – there has to be common elements.

But for each track or song, these elements are interpreted differently. Then I thought of the form of a Trance piece – intro, verse, chorus, breakdown, drop, buildup/verse, outro, plus bridges and breaks in between. So, the basic theme has to have about twelve variations. I was really up against that context to which Byrne refers. Then I wondered, considering all the work involved, how many movements, or variations, are there in a shortish classical piece, for instance, a sonata? Not that much more, basically – with the same number, and form, of movements.

Then I thought, OK, let’s see what comes out.

And what came out is a composition of just under 20 minutes long, called SinT, which stands for Sonata in Trance. All the work of all those months was to reconcile my wacky inspiration with the realities of form, technique, expression, instrumentation and context.

In the end, it was all about fitting it into a pre-existing format, proving David Byrne’s point.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to explain this critter I made a bit more. Thought I do wonder: it is the next track that is due to be released on Armin2016, but I wonder if I should bother, because who else out there will ever listen to it?

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