How do you compose music? That is a question that seems to always come up when talking with composers. I will be the first to admit that it is one of the first questions I ask whenever I’m talking with a visiting composer or artist. Everyone wants to know the method of getting from A to B (A being some type of catalyst and B being some type of artistic result). I know only that it must be different for everyone and that it probably isn’t A to B at all. Me, I’m an idea type of person.
It always starts with an idea. I’ll be eating breakfast and the toast burns and the smoke alarm goes off. Then for some reason I don’t know, I remember that there are smoke alarms that you can control with a TV remote control. Then the idea takes more form as my cereal starts to get soggy: There is a stage, the auditorium is pitch black there are 30 smoke alarms on stage, each one positioned in or near some type of resonator; long tubes of pvc, trash cans, timpani, pillows, etc. all spaced out so as to allow for precision remote control of each smoke alarm. Then I start pushing play on my TV remote and it gets loud.
A few seconds after drifting off, I’m back to my cereal and I begin to think a bit more rationally about the idea. First, why on earth would anyone want to experience the pain of a bunch of smoke alarms going off all at once? How much would each alarm cost? How far would each alarm have to be spaced from the other to allow remote control? Where am I going to get the resonators? Even harder, where am I going to get an audience? At this point the idea has been in existence for less than a minute and it has passed from glorious conjecture to harsh cross-examination–it is about to bleed out if I let myself go any further.
This is the point where I have to freeze all rationality and capture. I write it down. If I don’t have a pen or pencil I put it in my phone–I put everything on hold and find some way to record the idea. I didn’t always do this, but some time ago I started and now I’m to the point where I don’t even get to the cross-examination stage, I just write down the idea. Nothing is too crazy, bizarre, boring, etc. everything gets a fair shot at being a legitimate idea.
A few of the past ideas: garden music (record my plants), doodle songs based on improvised realizions of doodles that use a time lapse of the doodle being created as the time frame for the piece, Lieder-style songs for voice and tuba where the text is based on poetry about dreams, some piece with the title “electric salad,” improvisations using cell phones calling each other on speaker, electronic compositions using a guitar tuning up as its sole sound source, a composition that is played through the ground and can only be heard by putting your head on the ground (like the Indians do to hear the approaching bad guys in those old cowboy movies)… etc. etc..
Some have made it into existence, others, well, they are, and that’s what counts. When working with ideas the main thing is to catch them. Catching leads to the creation of more ideas–they want to be captured and tend to wander in as frequently as we will let them know we’re ready to pounce.