Thoughts on musical experiences, my own works, and who knows what else.
January is already well established, so it seems like a good time to take stock of 2018. While there were some proud musical successes, there were many more instances of pulling my hair out in front of my computer screen. If asked to name one defining phrase to sum up 2018…It’s “writer’s block”.
Or more specifically, composer’s block. I like to think that it afflicts even the most prolific of my peers from time to time.
Last year, it was a common occurrence for me to find myself with only an hour or so of solid composing time per day. This often came at the end of a work day, after dinner (it’s impossible for me to function on any higher level while hungry), just when I was hoping to fling myself into bed and not think any creative thoughts for the next eight hours. As a young 20-something with no dependents, I can only imagine what juggling work, study, creativity and caring for a family must be like. Does it only get worse from here?*
Rather than quake at the thought of another year spent forcing myself to write mediocre minutes, I am attempting to develop a process to ward off writer’s block. While this particular method may not work well for everyone, I’ve discovered that following a few quick physical and mental steps tends to re-frame whichever task I’m hoping to achieve and renew my focus. At least for ten minutes or so, which is often enough to leave you feeling like you’ve at least achieved something productive with your time.
So, what is the best way to overcome writer’s block in the short-term (while working towards better planning, focus, and motivation in the long-term)?
For me, it starts with backing away from the laptop (or the manuscript, or the instrument), closing my eyes, and taking some deep, yoga-like breaths. Often when composing, my brain becomes so saturated with the tiny section of sound I am working on that it becomes hard to hear where it fits into the work's overall structure. I liken this to smelling coffee in between testing different perfumes; reset your senses, so that when you’re ready to come at the work again, you can appraise it objectively.
LISTEN - DON’T LOOK
In her Treatise on Writing Acousmatic Music on Fixed Media, Annette Vande Gorne makes an important point:
“The audio result...may even be the opposite of what the eye sees on the mixing board.” While she is talking about analogue tape techniques here, the same rings true for the computer screen. Stop looking. Close your eyes, and ask yourself, "does this sound as good as it looks?" Vande Gorne drives the point home with,“focus on the loudspeakers, immersed in the sound rather than paying attention to gesture or the computer screen...Mix in interrelation with sound, not its visualisation!"
I often find when I cut out my sight, I can hear which phrases need more time to breathe. I now make a habit of listening to the whole work before making changes, perhaps writing down notes on paper as it progresses. Again, this gives me the ability to re-contextualise that small niggly section, and see what the work needs done holistically.
GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Sometimes it's worth pulling yourself out of the sound bog and doing away with that sense altogether. Before I start a piece, I tend to write or draw some sort of mind map which helps me to focus on the theme or feel I want. Returning to this planning stage in the middle of a piece seems to work just as well. For one person, this might involve pictures: illustrating texture, a scene you want to evoke next, etc. For me, writing down the feel, timbre and texture I'm aiming for in words seems to work best. I've been known to write down lists of onomatopoeias and adjectives and call this 'planning' - but hey, whatever works. When I'm once again ready to listen back to my work-in-progress, attempting to draw the existing and future structure gives perspective, and often clarity.
KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP
This doesn’t necessarily mean walking away completely. If now is just not the right time for you to compose, there are numerous other associated activities which deserve your time and effort.
*If you want to read more about the increased obstacles to creativity and income that female composers with families face, there are plenty of detailed resources which have been released in the past couple of years; you can start with my article here).