Imagine a World

I’ve just finished the last big event of my stay in Berlin, which was a concert in Kreuzberg’s Radialsystem that fortunately seemed to come off even better than expected. Now that the big push is finally over, I’d like to write a few more thoughts about the creative process, like excerpts from the quintessential “What I Learned This Year In Elementary School” essay but with fewer points deducted for shoddy margins.

The fact that an artist (and specifically a composer) can be too close to his or her own work has been articulated many times over in many guises. As I wrote last week, sometimes this problem can manifest itself in the composer focusing too much on the details at a stage before the whole has revealed itself. But sometimes I’ve found that focusing obsessively on the details can also be a legitimate path towards grasping the whole if I think of those details in a cumulative, global way, rather than as they pertain to particular nooks and crannies of the composition.

To illustrate my point, imagine that you were sitting down to write not a piece of music but a work of fiction—something really fantastic, say a science fiction novel based on an alien world. Of course, were this a traditional narrative, you would probably want to think about things like the plot, the principal characters, etc. But you could also come to it by asking questions more related to the setting: What kind of world is this, and what is it like? What does it feel like, sound like, smell like to be there? Are these questions even meaningful? Edgar Rice Burroughs once made the casual comment in one of his stories that on Mars, there is an additional primary color not present on Earth. Of course this is pretty close to meaningless, but when I read the story as a boy it really went a long way towards setting the exact tone I’m sure Burroughs wanted to fabricate—something that suggested a degree of alien strangeness that went beyond simply new organisms and their artifacts, but extended even to physical “laws.”

In a piece of music, I’ve found it useful to ask similar questions at times: What kind of world does this work inhabit? What kind of things can happen in it, and what kind of things can’t? How does tension tend to be resolved in this world? Is it related to another element in the music, and how would one express the nature of this relationship? I’ve half-jokingly been calling this approach “soft serialism” because it’s well suited towards organizing precompositional elements, but in this totally loose, hippy kind of way.

Sometimes I find that when I’ve taken the time to populate my worlds with interesting features, physical laws, and cultural details, the inevitable result of their interaction—the central drama of the composition—reveals itself with apparent ease.

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