While most composers feel somewhat comfortable discussing the technical “nuts and bolts” aspects of their compositional processes and techniques, it feels like you’re on thin ice when you ask them about what “inspired” a work or what ideas or mechanisms caused a work to emerge in its current shape. As I’ve been slowly racking up interviews with composers, I’ve tried to get around this thin ice by coming at the question from a side angle: “Do you incorporate non-musical ideas into your music and, if so, how do you go about it?” Seems pretty simple, but it offers for a toehold into the subject of inspiration and the role of outside forces on a composer’s output by asking a direct question that opens up a world of secondary questions, regardless of the answer.
Over the years I’ve heard many questions asked between experienced and emerging composers from both directions about whether or not the artist prefers to think of their work in terms of programmatic narratives or “absolute,” abstract musical concepts. Inevitably the first reaction is that the label “programmatic” is shied away from, even if there are connections evident, because of the baggage that has been accrued by the term over the years. Rare are the composers who can bring forth abashedly descriptive works, much less music that demonstrates an obvious narrative, without hesitation or qualification. And I understand this. My years studying film music instilled in me a sense that most of the modern concert world would always be resistant to music that was overly descriptive and not independent enough from external forces to the point that the music could not “stand by itself.” Whether or not this is true or not is another matter; the aversion to the programmatic in music with composers has been a consistent theme I’ve noticed in many circumstances regardless of location, experience, or context.
That being said, I have found that a great number of composers enjoy incorporating non-musical ideas or items into the creation of their work, either explicitly or behind-the-scenes, where most listeners would not recognize the influence. From surface aspects such as titles or basic structural concepts to building a work holistically around external non-musical material, many composers today enjoy selecting works of visual art, literature, theatre, and film, as well as real-life ideas such as politics, relationships, locations, or other such catalysts for their creative process. I feel the difference when comparing today’s composers with those of past generations is that there is a greater sense that the music should not be obvious; that the connections between the musical work and the external inspiration be evident at the root level of the piece but not necessarily on the surface. What is unknown is how subtle these connections can be and still resonate with an audience of widely varying backgrounds and expectations.