I suppose this has been the case for quite a while, but it is becoming increasingly clear just how much I tend to craft my musical ideas, at least initially, from a visual and physical perspective. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is not to say that this is something that is somehow unique to me, but rather, it is a useful observation of my own tendencies. It could be a function of the abstract language in which I work, but, especially at the outset, I find that I am “seeing” ideas, and describing them in terms of physical shape and trajectory. Musical considerations come in gradually — the dynamics or speed of a given idea — but the initial charge that fires the idea is typically the visual/physical. An acquaintance of mine, the artist Michael Zheng (http://www.michaelzheng.org/) first pointed this tendency of mine out to me at the MacDowell Colony probably about ten years ago. His observation has stuck with me, and has helped me to think more clearly about my musical ideas at the procedural point at which they are often the most murky — the beginning!
Speaking with other composers and artists I know, one thing I’ve become fascinated with is the amount of time they take between projects. Some bang out one project after another, with little to no time in between, others luxuriate in the afterglow of a completed work. I typically take at least a few weeks in between each, until the deadline sets up shop in my conscience.
For the first time in several years, however, I find myself at the start of a project with a flexible deadline. After completing my last work for Yarn/Wire, I am now planning a new chamber orchestra piece for my ensemble, Alia Musica Pittsburgh. As a member of this composers’ collective, I am in the fortunate position of having a certain degree of premiere-security; I can trust that the work will be programmed on one of the next several concerts. So, with this greater flexibility, I find that I’ve spent more time on the non-composing side of things — the business/promotion/teaching/etc. side of things. Or so I thought.
This is most likely a facet of creative life that everyone else has understood for some time, but it has become increasingly clear that, for me anyway, much of the time I think I’m not composing, I am, in fact, composing. Yes, if I have extra time between projects, I find ways to fill it with non-creative work. But I also find that my thoughts continually drift back to my next piece. I’ve realized that just because I’m not at the computer, or in a book, or in my piano, doesn’t mean I’m not creating. Whether it’s a half-hour on the elliptical, or an hour sitting in a silent room after my little son has fallen asleep, my ideas come into sharper focus with some time and space. Vague plans become increasingly specific plans, and reach a certain critical mass at which I find myself thrown into the more active part of the creative process.
With the amount of time that great minds like Mahler, Brahms, Darwin, Einstein, and many others spent on the walking trail, it shouldn’t be a surprise that time away from the work table is so fruitful. But, I think it’s good to realize these things for yourself; I find that the better I know my own tendencies (for work and for life in general), the better I can tap into whatever creative resources might be available (even if those resources are infinitely more scarce than they were for the luminaries listed above).
So, maybe we take less time between projects than we think. Maybe the rebound time is, itself, creative time. Regardless, I should probably close for now, as I need to go and write something down before I forget…
Thanks for checking out this blog. Just wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and tell you a little bit about what you can expect on here. My name is John Arrigo-Nelson, and I’m a composer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find out more about me at my website. My plan for this blog is to write primarily about music. I’ll blog a bit about my own creative process — struggles, rewards, and in-progress projects. But I’ll also post about music in general — composers and pieces that I’m interested in, bands I’m listening to, likes, dislikes, etc. I imagine I’ll veer off into non-musical territory on occasion as well — art, travel, pop culture, etc., but I’ll try my best to not let things spiral too far afield!
Thanks again for tuning in…more soon!