Inescapable Creativity: Composing 365

Composers write music on very different schedules, but what if creativity was put on a very short choke chain? Every day for the past year David Morneau has produced a new 60-second composition and distributed it via the Internet. His personal creative marathon is over on June 30, 2008, when he’ll post his last composition in this series, and it seemed like a great time to check in and see how the project has impacted his life and work. He was kind enough to indulge our curiosity.


David Morneau

—Questions for David Morneau—

Every day for the past year, you have composed a new 60-second composition and posted it on your blog, 60×365. I admit I’m having visions of Jack Bauer just thinking about it. What inspired you write a new piece of music every 24 hours?

I was interested in starting a blog to promote my work and my ideas about music, but I’m not interested in writing for a blog. I’m not a great writer and previous attempts at blogging always ended in frustration. Besides, there are already a lot of well written blogs by composers out there. Writing my own seemed like a futile attempt to stand out in an already crowded space.

Then last May (2007) I was working on a one-minute piece for Robert Voisey’s annual 60×60 project. In the middle of working one day I received an email from Boris Willis, choreographer and dancer, pointing me to Dance-A-Day, a podcast project he was starting. Every day he was making a new dance, videotaping it, and posting the video online. Suddenly the idea to make a one-minute piece every day for a year seemed like the perfect angle for a blog. 60×365 was born.

One thing that excited me right away was knowing that this project would force me to compose a lot more. Making a new piece every day is a huge commitment. Like many of my colleagues, I was having trouble finding time everyday to sit down to compose at all. I had hit a mental block on a couple of projects and felt like I was stuck in a rut. 60×365 presented a way to try out some new ideas while developing some discipline and routine in my creative life.

What began as an idea about composing for the internet became a creative lifestyle. Everything became a possible idea for a new piece. Friends and family offered suggestions and opinions. I created everyday and people listened everyday. It was fantastic.

You’ll post your final piece on June 30, 2008. How has your thinking changed over the past year, both purely aesthetically and in terms of how you approach the work of writing music?

I think that the biggest changes are the result of the working style I adopted in order to meet the revolving deadlines: composing intuitively. By that I mean developing ideas very quickly, experimenting with source materials without worrying about “correct” ways of working, and concerning myself more with the actual sound of the piece than with its conceptual structure. On some days there was very little time to work. If I had tried composing with the routines and methods I was used to before this project started nothing would have gotten finished.

There was little time for revisions. I never had the luxury of putting a piece aside and coming back to it days or weeks later. At first this was very scary and hard to get used to. I was putting a lot of incomplete and under-developed pieces out into the world. The nature of this project is more about composing a complete musical thought everyday than about crafting infinitely intricate miniatures. Looking back, I now like many of the pieces I was unsure of at the time.

Mellow (July 26) is a good example of this. Through the circumstances of the day there was no time to work until late in the evening. I had eaten a big meal with friends and was ready to zone out for the night, but still needed to compose my minute. I found a sampled electric piano loop that fit my mood, ran it through a couple of processes and filters in Logic then arranged the results in a dialog with the original. At the time it felt very rushed and incomplete. Now when I listen to it I find it very captivating in its way, and not at all deficient.

So, aesthetically I’m now less interested in intellectual complexity and more interested in phenomenological experience. The sound of a piece is more important to me than the idea behind it. Spending so much of my life composing within an academic setting I became, like many, enamored with complex structure and theoretical conceptions of music. So much so that it often got in the way of being creative. It’s very hard to work while thinking about how my ideas compare to previous ideas in our tradition. Maybe this is something that others can separate from their work, but I’ve always struggled with it.

60×365 helped me to exorcise these patterns from my composing, allowing me to become more productive and much more adventurous than I ever have been. I often find myself approaching new pieces with a sense of exploration rather than trying to realize a preconceived model I have in my head. Serendipity is now extremely important to me. Little unexpected things happen all the time while working. Before I thought of these as mistakes. Now I give them a second glance. Many times these end up being more interesting to me than what I was originally trying to do.

The final piece of the project, At Last (June 30), is a good example of these changes. The idea was to make a collage of cadences. I began work on it by sifting through my CD’s collecting samples. It was at this point that I remembered the dramatic and extended way Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ends; since the project began with a collage of the Fifth Symphony (bsym5.1 – July 1), it seemed perfect to end that way.

So I loaded the final bars of the symphony into my computer and began playing with other samples to see what worked well with it. Before this project I probably would have approached this piece by collecting only cadences from Beethoven symphonies. Since I’m now open to trying many ideas, I discovered that the more clichéd endings from other styles and genres—the swing bands, the crazy bop saxophone, the predictable blues guitar—worked surprisingly well. It ended up being much funnier than I hoped.


Morneau spent the year expanding his creativity and his compositional calendar

Would this project have been worthwhile without contemporary media sharing systems such as blogger networks, rss feeds, and podcasting?

While there are certainly benefits from composing a complete new piece every day, I don’t think the experience would have been nearly as rich without these systems. These technologies allowed me to connect with my audience in new ways. It was gratifying to receive positive feedback about my work. Most often this would come from friends and family either posting a comment or sending an email, but every so often a complete stranger would have something to say. This was always exciting, and it really helped to know that people were listening. In fact, as the year went on I began to realize that 60×365 was also a commitment for the core audience who listened to every piece as it came along. What an amazing experience to lead people through a year in this way. I tried to acknowledge this relationship by designating November as “Listener Appreciation Month.” Every piece composed that month came from an idea suggested by a listener.

Knowing that I was composing in public (so to speak) kept this project moving along. It would have been very easy to walk away from it if no one would notice. Jay Batzner, who runs his own weekly podcast, Unsafe Bull, wrote about this idea in “The Composer as Podcaster,” an article for the Society of Composers Newsletter (March-April 2008). He writes about creating “an audience of listeners who want their weekly composition…. My imaginary audience is demanding music and I must supply it.” Internet sharing technologies made me very aware of my listeners, and obligated me to keep working.

Another benefit of working within these media sharing systems is interacting with other artists. I mentioned Boris Willis’s Dance-A-Day before. He and I collaborated every Friday during the period that both our projects were live. One week he would make his video early and send it to me for music, then the next week I’d make some music early and send it to him for a dance. Besides being able to cross-pollinate our audiences, we were able to experiment with the collaborative act in the same way that we were experimenting with our respective arts. Sometimes we’d try to work against what the other person had done. Sometimes we’d make pieces that responded to previous pieces. I liked to give him a challenge sometimes; once I made an absurd collage using samples of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears for him to use (bff – August 17). He responded with a dance inter-cut with footage of random blonde women, a search for Paris.

I also met Jay Batzner and got to know his work this year. We’ve shared comments about, interacted with, and promoted each other’s podcasts. Knowing that another composer was attempting to do something similar for a lot of the same reasons was very reassuring.

You drew inspiration from all over: everything from national headlines to lost sounds recovered from your personal computer. What were some of the most unexpected sources of musical ideas? What were some of the most fruitful?

It’s funny how these things work. I had several ideas that I was sure would generate lots of pieces, but never quite did anything. For example, I have a folder full of sounds I recorded while working at the Book Depository at Ohio State. These are all sounds of HVAC systems, really varied and interesting. I wanted to make a series of seven pieces named stx1, stx2, etc. (stx was the library’s system code for the depository.) I struggled to make two (stx1 – August 8 and stx2 – October 4) and never got around to working on the others.

Then one accidental idea can end up yielding many interesting experiments. During a visit with a friend, we came across an old cassette tape of a music group we had formed in college. I offered to transfer it to CD so that we could have a more durable copy. While listening to it I became inspired to use it for a piece. That quickly turned into three pieces (Joyful Noise 1, Joyful Noise 2, and Joyful Noise 3 – October 15-17). Later I began looking for other old cassettes of music I had made earlier in my life and generated seven more pieces (Big Feet Birthday – May 2, Upside Down – May 6, Row Your What – May 7, eieio – May 8, Meeting Mudd – May 10, Old School – May 23, and Trombone Please – May 24).

Certain tools seemed to inspire a lot of ideas. Max/MSP generated over 40 pieces, which was great. Making so many little pieces with it really helped me understand that program a lot more. I also made at least a dozen more pieces using Max/MSP patches that I found online. SoundHack made regular appearances in my work this year. I liked using Sound Studio to create (even though it’s more of a file editing and mastering tool). Careful cutting and pasting can yield some excellent little glitch pieces, like Gl!itch (tar) – August 5 and No Idea – January 3.

One very unexpected idea came while looking for something in iTunes one day. I have a lot of long mixes from other podcasts, some which aren’t well labeled about which songs are where. To find what I was looking for I ended up clicking in different places along the playback bar. At one point I accidentally clicked and dragged and discovered that iTunes doesn’t really scrub very well, it just skips around trying to keep up. Inspired, I routed the output into my recording software and scrubbed around for a while. Then I carefully selected little chunks of my “performance” to construct a cohesive piece. ScrubM (October 27) quickly became one of my favorite pieces.

Did you ever get bored?

No, I don’t think so. There were always enough things to try to keep it interesting. I know that I got tired of the project several times. Working everyday can get old. Often I’ve got other things to do so I may not have the time to enjoy the process. This becomes frustrating very quickly. Of course if I only composed when I had lots of time to enjoy it I’d be writing much less. But this is the part of the project that ultimately is the most rewarding. I’ve made creativity a central focus of my life. I get to compose something new every day. It’s exhilarating. I feel very lucky to have done this.

Knowing what you know now, if you had the chance to do the year over, would you do it again?

Definitely. I know that I am a better composer now than I was before. Proving that I possessed the creative stamina to finish this project gives me a lot of confidence in my abilities. I had the chance to try out a lot of new ideas and techniques much sooner than I would have otherwise.

Plus I’ve met new people online through this project. More people know my music now.

Even though it was very difficult on some days, the benefits far outweigh the struggle. I think that everyone should try their hand at making something new everyday, even if just for a month. Now that I’ve finished I’m going to look for ways to promote the idea of being creative everyday. There are several projects out there doing that already (Flickr has several 365 groups and Thing-A-Day), but there’s always room for one more. I’ll see what comes up.

Will you do it again?

Maybe, but not for a long while. It’s a big commitment.