Intellect, Intuition, and Inspiration and Their Link to Compositional Process

When I was first studying composition, I watched an episode of 60 Minutes about a very young composer named Jay Greenburg. At the age of twelve, this young man had already written several symphonies and was studying music theory and composition at Julliard. Jay mentioned during this documentary that he often “heard” his music in his head, sometimes several complete pieces at once and only then needed to write them down. Because of this statement, one of the major subjects of this documentary was a discussion of “where” Jay’s music came from. Jay himself answered this question by casually smiling and explaining that he didn’t know. This was followed by a series of experts, including Jay’s teacher Samuel Adler, explaining how dangerous this is. I recall in particular Adler’s statement that the most important thing for Jay was that he continually keep questioning where his inspiration came from, and never take it for granted, lest it leave him. Jay, now 20, is still writing music and is currently published by G. Schirmer.
Inspiration itself is a tough nut to crack and is a dangerous tool on which to rely. Recently, while attempting to write a new work, I discovered that a new idea, unrelated to what I was actually intending to write, had crept into my head. I certainly would never claim to hear “fully formed” music in my head, but this experience is a related one. It is more like understanding how a piece works, how it moves from one moment to another, the sensation one has when listening to it, without actually hearing it. The actual task of composing then becomes a process of working out the details of how to recreate those sensations in a way that makes musical sense. I will admit that this has happened to me before, but this particular episode was significant because I became aware of the fact that it was happening at a strange and inopportune time while working on another piece.  In a way, I had the sense that my own inspiration was dictating when I should work on what.
Compositional process and inspiration, I believe, are intrinsically related. Much of the path that a composer takes from the inception of an idea to a completed work is determined by the way that composer fosters and reacts to their own inspiration. This year, while studying at DU, I had the pleasure of participating in a number of discussions about compositional process moderated by my colleague, Sarah Perske.  Sarah was going through an evaluative and analytical journey with her own compositional process and was kind enough to share that journey with the rest of us. For me, the most important element of Sarah sharing this was that it caused me to analyze my own process. I found that Sarah’s process and my own are strikingly different, and that these differences shed a remarkable light on the role of inspiration in our two different compositional methods.
I believe that Sarah’s process is largely driven by her musical intellect.  She begins with what she calls “a topic.” This can be something extra-musical, or can just be a sound or technique she wishes to explore. This is followed by “messing around at the piano” in an effort to find a sound that will fit with her topic. From here, Sarah moves into a sketching process that I know to be very in depth. She explains: “I start thinking in terms of creating ‘pillars;’ these could be important events in the piece, or textures that I want to create that have some sort of goal. Once I reach this point, I tend to alternate between ‘zooming in’ on detail, and ‘zooming out’ to look at the overall form.” This zooming in and out process seems to necessitate a non-linear composition process that jumps around the piece and, interestingly, is also how Sarah describes her method of dealing with writer’s block. Another thing that I found interesting regarding this stage in Sarah’s process is that the composition and engraving processes are largely separate for her; she typically doesn’t start on the engraved score until the composition itself is nearly complete through her sketches or until she has a complete, handwritten score.
I believe that my process is driven largely by intuition. For me, almost all of my works begin with extra-musical concepts and a series of decisions regarding instrumentation, pitch content, and form based on the “feeling” I wish to express about the given concept. Once I have these ideas formed, I listen to music for the ensemble I am writing for or to music that is related to my ideas in some other way. Usually during this time is when actual musical ideas are formed in my head. This is typically followed by brief sketches, usually consisting of line drawings and verbal notes to myself regarding textures and important events. To give an example of the brevity of these sketches, a current work in progress is made up of three movements; sketches for the entire piece take up only about half of a page in total. I then immediately begin composing directly into finale, feeling my way through the piece and deciding what happens next based on intuition. This process is almost always linear, though it may include vaguely fleshed out ideas or written notes between sections of fully notated music. If I get stuck, I stop working and wait for a solution to present itself to me. Often times this means returning to the listening portion of my process again.
Since I am not a third party to this comparison, I’m not really able to present an accurate discussion of the quality of the results of these methods.  I can say subjectively that I like both Sarah’s and my own music.  I believe that I can discuss the efficiency of these two processes though.  To me, Sarah’s process seems highly active and proactive. Her preparation time is spent in researching and improvising and when she gets stuck, her reaction is to work her way out of it. I see my own process as much more passive. I prepare by listening and waiting for something to occur to me and when I get stuck, I wait my way out. This, I believe, is the fundamental difference between the two processes, and leads to the fundamental danger that I frequently encounter in my own writing. On several occasions the end result has been me staring at a blank page waiting for something to happen, sometimes for months on end.
Inspiration, intuition, and intellect are resources that all composers share.  We all develop methods of creating that utilize our different strengths in each area and attempt to compensate for our perceived weaknesses. No one process actually yields “better” results than any other, but, like Samuel Adler explains, relying too heavily on one tool over the other can be dangerous. I don’t actually know if Adler is right; maybe we can’t rely on the tools that we use if we use them too much, but maybe we can. I have the sense that composers like Mozart, and perhaps Jay Greenburg, create solely based on inspiration.  I have spent a great deal of time trying to foster my own intuition and learn to listen to myself while creating, yet I remain a slave to my own inspiration. I don’t think I know how to change my process and still be authentic to the music that I feel compelled to create, regardless of the danger that implies. For me at least, I suppose staring at a blank page is as important to my method as anything else.


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