Tuesday, 6 September 2016


"Where to go next when I have run out of ideas".

I was recently asked this question by a composer:

“How do I know where to go next when I have run out of (musical) ideas?” Like so many simple questions it is full of complex issues. In an earlier blog I discussed the musical roles and activities that can now be associated with the term “composer”. There are so many ways of generating, assembling and playing with sounds that thinking in traditional terms such as understanding harmonic progressions will no longer suffice to respond to the question.

What do we mean when we say we have run out of ideas? A process is under way, certain projections have been made based upon the composing intention and the flow of the process is disrupted. Let us say that I wish to grow certain plants in the corner of my garden. There are a number of factors which may assist or hinder my plan, the amount of sunlight, the quality of the soil, the quantity of water available, the presence of other plants and so on. The success of the project may depend on luck, observation, experience, cultural attitude or scientific knowledge or a combination of these.  The more informed we are about the environment in which we work the better our chances of success, but there are no guarantees as the number of variables are large. Some people are considered to have “green fingers” while others can complain that plants don’t survive under their care. This type of thinking has parallels with art in general which makes some people take the attitude that natural or innate talent is required and many attribute ability to genetics. Whether the skills are part or wholly dependent on external factors the processes may still break down or function less well than our initial projection(s) had suggested.

One way of approaching this is to change the question to “what structural problems will I encounter when composing?” To respond one could provide examples of well-structured works, encourage study and imitation and hope that the student will then move on to better formulations and results. This approach is the basis of traditional music education but with changes in technology and methods of sound production and with a wider acceptance of what audiences will tolerate and enjoy it may be time to think outside the box, or at least ask a wider range of questions.

Given that the methods of approaching playing with sound are varied one less rigorous approach could be to gather the material to be used, live with the collection and become familiar with their characteristics, reject some material, reformulate associations before attending to the assemblage, this is an acknowledged process for many composers, but sometimes the less exact processes can lead to reasonable if not inspired outcomes.

If we examine the first part of the question “How do I know where to go next…” we are treading on the ground of causation and correlation. For the purposes of this blog we are considering the musical relationships between objects and events. While playing through the third Arne sonata today I stopped playing after the first part of the Allegro and asked myself what would I do with the material presented? The manoeuvres which Arne selects are entertaining, witty, and delightful, these qualities demonstrates his musicianship and his ability to choose well. So the question needs to be refined again: “How do I know where is best to go next?” In a recent blog I presented the fanciful idea of a supercomputer being given a task of rewriting a development section of a sonata having been given the exposition and rules of procedure. The mechanics of such an idea are fascinating in their own right but when we throw in the assessment of best choice a whole new world of possibilities and difficulties are raised.

While considering causation a list of terms indicating the creative action may be of some use, these are refined to terms best applied to music:

make, create, effect, produce, influence, construct, compose, stimulate, initiate.

The act of creation may bring into play, events, outcomes, developments and a wide variety of results.

While playing the Arne sonata I could take into consideration the development of a number of ideas in relation to each other. Rhythmic figures, harmonies, melodic fragments are all fused into a larger scale identity which is then processed as a single unit to be changed by a recognised formula, e.g. a change of key. However as matters stand in contemporary music the structures and grouping of materials are very different, in some music the relationship between events are highly regulated and in others deliberately disassembled.

If we play a little with Aristotle’s ideas on causation we can identify that our knowledge of objects arise in his terms from formal, material, efficient and final causes. With the focus on music we are dealing with how sounds arise from raw components or constituents, elements or ingredients, forming the structure. We need to appreciate how the sounds are intended and planned to create the final product accepting that music should be determined by its form, arising from pattern, control of its parts and style. In order to achieve this we must be aware of the components and their reactions. Later we may present the reason for the entity’s existence: why is it there, what purpose does it serve?

This helps a little in our quest to answer the question, that is to say, when at a point of crisis in composing music we may ask some relevant questions:

Are the components used appropriate to the task?

Is the form of the work clear? Is there a direction to the product and is the composer using the appropriate constituents to articulate its direction?

Are there sufficient components to achieve the direction, or possibly too many.

Was the purpose of the music well defined at the start of the process? Has the purpose been modified during the process, if so does it need revisiting?

While all this discussion may be of use in practical terms I have found the following procedure most helpful, if the process is not flowing it has become too complex. If the music is too complex the most likely cause is a lack of clarity in the composing intention. If it comes down to the point of I can’t find a B to follow A it is less likely to be a problem of syntax than purpose, but that is a personal point of view.