One of the more awkward parts of being a composer is trying to explain to people I’ve recently met exactly what it is that I do. Years of practice have left me relatively well equipped for the initial salvo: “Yes, I write music: Freaky-deak experimental strange stuff. Yeah, I like my music noisy. I don’t really have an instrument, but I do improvise on toy piano.” At which point, things tend to get easier because the conversation now steers one of three ways: 1) the other person decides to tell me about him/herself (which I invariably find vastly more interesting); 2) the topic moves towards the intricacies of the toy piano; or 3) the person is genuinely interested in delving further into this unusual life. In these latter cases, “How do you get your ideas?” is one of the questions that often arises. This curiosity is not exclusive to people meeting their first composers; it is a common initial inquiry from people outside our fields when meeting artists, writers, filmmakers, and all other creatives working within the arts.
One of the biggest difficulties I have in answering this question is that any true response would be somewhat technical. Any beginning stab at an attempt to describe what exactly I see as a musical “idea” would involve some discussion of (at the very least) instrumentation, some of my sonic obsessions, some idea of how music moves through time, the performer/composer relationship, and the role of the composer in contemporary society. I would need to explain how some concepts can be expanded easily into full pieces while others that appear promising at first blush instead wither under the full focus of creative work. I would need to describe the process of moving from an initial glimmer to a completed piece. Like the parent responding to an innocent child asking where babies come from, at times I want to revert to the simplest answer: the stork.
More than any other question, this one displays the gulf between the creative class and potential patrons of the arts. Every artist I know finds the concept behind this query to be perplexing. We tend not to maintain a dearth of ideas but rather lack the time to realize all the concepts we ideate. The limiting factors on our output tend to be those of funding support and of energy. One of the postulates of quantum physics is that of the alternate universes that are created as particles, which can appear in many different locations, actually appear—presumably each possibility spawns its own reality. Artists glimpse these alternative paths branching off from their chosen projects, each path leading towards an infinite array of other pieces. The more time we spend working on any one piece, the more seeds are planted that can each germinate with enough resources.
At the moment, I’m working on my largest project to date, and this is leaving me champing at the bit. Ideas for other pieces keep arising unbidden and need to be set aside. The main difficulty is that of focusing on the non-opera, the task at hand, rather than succumbing to the enticement of the easier, smaller compositions, the ideas that try to call me away from the long-term process.
Finding new ideas is never a problem. Except for these columns. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.