BY SCOTT MCINTYRE, COMPOSER
“Right now, it’s only a notion, but I think I can… make it into a concept, and then later, turn it into an idea.”
– Annie Hall, 1977
This has always been one of my favourite lines from a comedy film. The context is one of those big swanky Hollywood parties packed with wannabe actors and producers, and it attempts to mock the ‘process’ of a ‘creative’ path through an absurdly conflated approach.
Anyone working in academia or for a large corporate will understand is the often long, drawn-out approach to getting anything of the ground; an endless series of meetings…
But for most involved in the creative arts, this is usually a normal part of the process, albeit for those working solo or part of a collaborative group. Many people viewing those ‘creative’ types will imagine the ‘composer’ suddenly putting their wrist to their forehead, exclaiming that they have a flash of ‘inspiration!’, and they must dash off to write out this new symphony as if God himself is dictating to them.
I remember rolling my eyes when presented with these stories in music history classes. Because for most of us, creating a new work is a long and sometimes tedious process.
For me, the path from notion to concept to idea is an important part of the creative process. For those of us who aren’t taking down notes from a higher power, these steps are crucial to developing craft and gaining a deeper understanding of what it is we do.
Am I really creative?
This gets me back to our first point of discussion: am I really creative? Or am I just following a series of steps that I have developed over a long period of time to complete a project?
The first piece I ever finished was in 1987. I don’t really remember much of it, but I can recall it was hard work. It’s still hard work, despite the 30 intervening years. The notion part of the process usually comes to me when I am not able to get to a pencil/pen/computer. Usually whilst showing, driving, washing the dishes…you get the idea.
Very occasionally, I have dreamt entire passages of music, only to wake up and pretty much forget the whole thing. For me, notions are those ideas that recur and are rememberable. Not all of these ideas make it, just the ones that seem to stick.
Case in point: writing my string quartets
To illustrate my point, let’s take the current piece I’m working on: String Quartet No. 5. I had a notion of writing a new quartet that would be electric. Not just for amplified instruments, but for a quartet of entirely electric instruments – e.g., electric violins, electric viola, and electric cello. For me, notions take quite a while to progress to a concept, in this case, it was probably three years. In fact, I had only just completed my Quartet No. 2, but I was already thinking about five! (I had finished No. 2 in 2008…you get the idea…)
The point my notions become concepts is when I can grasp tangible elements of what a piece may become. Again, this can sometimes take a long time. This point came after the completion of Quartet No. 3 in 2012. The concept for Quartet No. 5 would be “a gradual movement from traditional acoustic strings in the first half of the piece to an entirely electric second half”. Also, I knew the piece would be long – roughly 40-45 minutes.
So it’s taken me four years to work this out?!
It wasn’t until after I had completed Quartet No. 4 that I began to have actual musical ideas on what the fifth would be. This would have been late-2016.
Ok, so eight years from a notion to an idea…Bear in mind that for each of the other quartets I have worked on in the intervening time, the steps of notion – concept – idea have also taken place; sometimes it has only taken a matter of weeks, while quartet No. 5 has definitely been the longest so far. It was in September 2017 that I started actual work on the quartet.
The question of creativity
This is all still leading back to the question of creativity. Do we imagine creativity as ‘flashes’ of inspiration, or is it the long path that these works often take to complete? Is it creativity, or just long, hard work? Is that what creativity is?
My own path learning to write music has been a long process. I have been at it for more than 30 years. I think I really started to ‘get’ it only a handful of years ago, as I was finishing off my PhD. Sustaining ideas and seeing pieces through to the end was definitely my challenge early on. So much so that I had to draw up processes and systems to help me sustain the work, to keep me moving. Some of the work was tedious and boring, but these processes helped me sustain and think more about the piece as I worked on them. I still use many of those processes, even though I have written many dozens of pieces since. Not to say that it has gotten easier to write, but I have much more practice.
It all comes down to practice
I guess practice is the key. You can only get better at something by practising. Am I creative, or have I just gotten better at it? Of course, just by writing something down, I have ‘created it’, but is this what it means to be creative? Or am I just patient and hard working? Is the notion of being ‘creative’ just part of those romanticised music history anecdotes people still cling to?
I really don’t know if I am creative. I just follow a series of carefully designed steps and sequences, hopefully to produce a result somewhere down the line.
Of course, I enjoy the work I do very much. I wouldn’t really want to be doing it otherwise, despite some of it being part of the process.
You can read more from composer Scott McIntyre on CutCommon. Start out with ‘Writing for piano (and destroying the universe)‘.
Image: ahhhnice via Flickr CC BY 2.0