Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Perfect Ingredients

After hearing an impressive soundtrack for a mediocre science fiction film, I was inspired to start composing an electronic piece. One of the challenges and pleasures of electronic music is determining what resources to use. If I compose a string quartet, I know that my resources are going to be the four instruments of that ensemble. And if I write a work for full orchestra, I have a broader array of colors at my disposal, but there are different things to consider about writing for a large ensemble that aren't issues for a chamber group. With electronic music, any sound is a potential resource, so determining which sounds to include and develop in a piece is an important phase of the composition process.

The challenge for me this week has been in limiting my resources. There are so many great possibilities, I have spent the week listening to sound files and taking notes about their qualities; imagining how they might sound if I combined them with other sounds; or what I could create from altering or slicing up a particular sound. I could do this exploration for weeks and never get to the actual creation of anything musical. Getting distracted by the wealth of possibility prevents me from moving forward in the process.

It is as if I determined to cook dinner, and so I set about collecting the perfect ingredients instead of selecting a particular recipe or dish to prepare. Once I have all of the perfect ingredients assembled, I will be able to create a wonderful meal from them. Except that I might never finish collecting perfect ingredients and move on into the meal preparation phase. If I know what I want to cook, I can gather the appropriate ingredients more effectively. And if I determine that I will just use the ingredients I have on hand, I can really streamline meal preparation.

In the purpose-building video course I recently created, I quote the composer Igor Stravinsky, as saying: If everything is possible, I can write nothing. He added to that sentiment, The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. In other words, if I take a few particularly compelling resources and determine that the piece I'm composing will only use those resources, I open up space for my creativity to be expressed. I can focus on composing the piece because I have moved past exploring the possible resources. Limiting the possibilities I will entertain makes all of my decisions about this piece easier. There will always be another opportunity to compose some music and use a compelling sound I'm leaving out of this project.

And that experience this week has me looking at other areas of my life. Where else do I spend so much time considering the possibilities that I become paralyzed? Placing some purposeful constraints on my decision-making can serve to propel me forward. For the electronic piece, the resources I chose were somewhat arbitrary. Out of dozens of sounds I find compelling and interesting, I selected a few more or less at random, just to be done with the decision and move forward. In other areas of life, less arbitrary constraints might actually be more appropriate.
Recognizing my purpose in a given situation can have tremendous impact by allowing me to focus my boundaries and constraints precisely toward a specific goal.

It's tempting to wait until I have accumulated all of the perfect ingredients before I set about creating something. Perhaps I believe that once I have all of the pieces, they will simply fall into place. But I will never have everything figured out. I can set my creativity loose if I am willing to set some parameters for the journey. There will be opportunities to gather more resources along the way, but I have enough in this very moment to take a step forward.

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