Ewan Mackay

How to Find Compositional Inspiration

Finding Composition Ideas (Featured Image)
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If you have ever composed in your life, you will be aware of the near-constant search for ideas. Crafting the piece. Trying to be different in your approach each time to create something fresh. Dealing with self-doubt. When I first began composing, I would often ask my teachers, where does music come from, and how you compose. This is a big question for a teacher or mentor to answer because there is no one answer.  As composers, we all have our own methods and ways of finding inspiration. It could be found in the music that has come before us, our personal lives, our faith or philosophical ideas, or the landscapes around us. I am about to begin a new work for Violist  Jessica Beeston, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of inspiration and trying to find new methods of working on this new piece. In this article, I want to share some of the ideas that have worked for me in my compositional work, which might be of use to you in your own compositional practice. 


Inspiration in other disciplines:

I try to begin each composition by researching other artistic paths, such as poetry. I find it useful to open my mind to try and find a way into the music which will hopefully stir my creativity and make the initial composition a little easier, but, there is nothing more daunting than a blank score waiting to be written.

I have used poetry many times as inspiration for my compositional work, in pieces such as Dream-Land, Reed Songs, and Reflection O the Hills. Each poem is different in its structure, use of language, and imagery. The challenge for me as a composer is to take influence and inspiration and make it sound like my own voice. For me, when I read a poem, and begin to live with it for a few days as I begin writing, I am able to hear the music in the words. Different melodies, colours, and textures begin to emerge from the lines of text. Depending on how the writer has constructed the poem, this process is either quick to manifest itself, or can take a little longer.

Musical visulisation technique:

One of my favourite approaches to finding inspiration for a new idea is to sit at my desk, or lay on the sofa in my study and visualise. It sounds like a rather abstract idea, but, there’s nothing odd at work here, and any of us can do it. The idea was shared to me by my mentor Tony Young, and I was amazed at the results. In short the concept involves quieting down your mind. Imagine the player(s) or ensemble you are writing for walking on to the stage. The audience applaud. The player readies their instrument. What happens next is where this concept begins to work. The first sound or bars of music you hear is what you write down. From there you have a motif, a few bars or a line of music on which you can continue to build your piece. No, this doesn’t mean you won’t get rid of that initial idea and start again – I often do, but what it forces you to do is start. Procrastination and stalling is the enemy of creativity, but so is dreaming too much. I always try to get a start and let the music write itself, then after that first draft is complete I start to tidy it up and edit my work. The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was deeply inspired by the idea of gardens. We can compare composing to gardening. To begin with, you have this tiny idea – a little patch of land, and as the piece develops you begin to plant more seeds, which grow into something more substantial. I encourage you to try this for yourself. It only takes a few moments, but the results can be interesting and it will force you to get your mind into composing, rather than thinking about the bigger picture.


Get in touch with nature:

This is a mainstay of a creative persons inspirational process. Getting away from your desk and into nature can be a great way to disconnect from the work, let your mind wander and the inspiration flow. Regardless of where you are in the world, there is always a place of piece and quiet for you to gather your thoughts and inspirational material which you can bring back to your work. Plato once stated, ‘The world has music for those who listen’. This is so true. From bird song to the wind rustling through the branches and leaves of a tree, there is music anywhere you choose to find it. All we have to do is open our minds and our ears and be open to the influences around us. As a composer, I am hugely inspired by the landscape. The serenity of the North-east coast and its various forms and features provides a well of inspiration I can draw upon. 

One of my personal favourite methods is to sketch the lines of the landscape, from there, I have the trajectory of the piece in its length and dynamic range. Mapping out a piece will give you a graphical inspiration for you to refer to and become inspired by throughout the composition process. I also find that taking photographs, videos and audio recordings of the spaces I find myself walking in. This allows me to document and keep a record of the various elements I have experienced, should I choose to use them to inform my piece.

Expanding ones mind often has interesting results for the creative process. Being creative individuals we can use various methods and tools at our disposal to inspire the music we compose. There is inspiration everywhere. If you remain open minded to how we approach the idea of inspiration and influence, if we try to break away from our old habits, our music will be richer, deeper and more creative as a result

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