On Composing


When I was in junior high I took an elective class on creative writing which at the time I found fairly disappointing. The class consisted of students bringing in whatever they had written and the teacher and class critiquing it. I was more interested in the question of what the genesis of these writings was. How does a person come up w/ and idea for a poem (or song, or painting, or whatever)? This was never addressed in the class (and the teacher didn’t seem too pleased w/ me for bringing it up).

When I first got into music, the rock and roll bands I admired all wrote their own material, so I figured that was a requirement, and I tried to write songs but quickly found I was terrible at it (very quickly). Later on, I became more interested in jazz and blues, and there are plenty of famous folk in those genres who don’t write their own material, so I decided I would concentrate on my playing and I could always play other people’s songs. Ironically, it was soon after that that I started composing my own music.

But saying “composing” may not be putting it quite right. It brings up the image that I donned a powdered wig and pulled out a quill and some parchment and started the work of “composing” a piece of music. That’s not how I do it at all. Unfortunately, it’s a lot less theatrical. Musical “ideas” kind of just appear in my mind (and I’m still not sure where they come from. Now I’m able to appreciate that teacher’s annoyance w/ my query). In the early days this would very often happen while I was doing something else, like bicycling (which is annoying when you’re trying to pay attention to traffic and such, but are also giving attention to this song in your head, trying to figure it out). A melody would just “happen” in  my mind. Or it might be a set of chord changes, or a rhythm (many of my tunes have started w/ a drum beat that I heard, which is considerable amusing as I don’t play drums at all). More recently I might hear a lyric, or some combination of lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, or whatever (pick any 1-3 of the above). There was one time I had just heard a grad student (at Stony Brook) perform an Elliot Carter piece for percussion, and after it concluded and the audience started applauding, I heard the entire “the Maginot Stomp” (early Piltdown Man number) and had too rush home (missing the remainder of the concert) and stay up until dawn figuring it out.

I’ve even “dreamed” songs, or at least I assume I have. On at least two occasions I have woken up w/ a song fully finished running through my head. So where did it come from? I’m very often concerned when this happens that I’m plagiarizing someone, but so far no one has heard one of these songs and told me “you just copied X”. Could be that I’m stealing from obscure sources, but I would’ve expected someone would have caught me by now.

When I am “composing”, it’s really more like I’m editing, or figuring out a song off a record I heard once. There’ll be this “idea” that appears, and I’ll be playing w/ it and trying to get it right, (or trying to figure out how to make it work for whatever group I’m currently playing w/). Like if you told a group of artists to paint the lawn (a representation of it, not to actually paint over the grass, you silly goose). Each artist would likely approach it differently (and may have even thought about varying options for this particular landscape), but the “idea” of painting the lawn was the given. That initial inspiration is the fleeting thing that I still don’t know where it comes from. And sometimes it’s a very specific and complete idea (these chords w/ this melody w/ this lyric and this bassline), or it might just be a guitar riff that I have to do something w/, and other times it’s just a kind of vague sound (which it’s hard to put an example of, as the sound can’t be put into words. That’s why I have to figure out how to make it into a tune).

When I get these incomplete ideas, sometimes I get so excited that I force myself to complete them straight-away. I’ve discovered over the numerous times I’ve tried this that it always turns out terrible. When I first came up w/ the guitar riff for “Forsaken?” (on the Coincidence Machine Bandcamp page) I dug it so much that I immediately set to putting lyrics to it and recording it. It was truly awful. It was years later that I was just waking up one morning and heard these blues lyrics in my head. But as I thought about them I noticed they were a blues w/ different chords than a blues usually has. Suddenly it hit me that these were the lyrics for that guitar thang I’d written (and ended up hating). So over the years I’ve learned to be patient, and let these songs finish themselves. (This can be rather frustrating. I have this very Rush inspired double-neck thang that I’ve been playing around with since I got the instrument, and I’d really love to perform it, but no lyrics have come yet. I guess I’ll just keep waiting).




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