Monday, 7 December 2015

The composer’s toolbox – How to find your muse.

In a practical guide such as the manual for the Skoda Octavia you would expect to find the details of components, how to assemble and disassemble them and even such matters as comfort (seating and heating), but a chapter on how to drive your car with panache in not its concern, and a chapter on how to fall in love with your Skoda, or even more bizarrely how to get your Skoda to fall in love with you, belongs to another world.
I don’t want to go down the road of suggesting that a composer is like a car mechanic or designer, though there would be some fun to be had in stretching the analogy.  However, if there is a composer’s toolbox, then there must be tools, and these require knowledge of their use. With knowledge comes mastery of the form.

Here we have our wall. 

Some composers have an ability to communicate and reach out to an audience and some don’t.  Is this the fault of the tools we use, the way we use them, or is it as the Bard suggests

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…

If you feel the need to compose like a hunger then music rather than instant success is your primary goal.  There are barriers to composing, the first is that you have to learn the basics of music making in your culture and later perhaps other cultures as well.  It may be said that books on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration are lacking in excitement, for me they are less stimulating than a dictionary, but they are a necessity.
Is this blog about music theory rather than muses, no it isn’t, but before we understand inspiration we must accept that we require the knowledge of how to divine the inspiration.  Now there’s a word (divine) with double meanings, these are taken from the Chambers dictionary, much loved by crossword solvers who know a thing or two about inspiration:

Proceeding from a god, holy.
Excellent in the highest degree.
To forsee or fortell as if divinely inspired.
To guess or make out.
To search (as for underground water).

Let us take the most unlikely entry, the last one, and change the word ‘water’ for ‘source’.  Here we are, skilled musicians, proficient in harmony, melodic construction, counterpoint and the like, pen (or keyboard) in hand.  What happens next?  This is an account of Mahler on reading a copy of “Veni creator”:
"I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me."
Such an event would be welcomed by musicians, there being a sense of play rather than work in the process.  He finds a source and that source permits his energies to flow freely.  (In our analogy with water it is worth considering that underground rivers flow because they have channelled through rock over eons).
Now the first definition, proceeding from a god, and from god /  goddess take the term ‘muse’.  Chambers lists the nine Greek Goddesses whose skills encompass history, astronomy, tragedy and comedy, epic, love sacred and lyric poetry, and dancing.  Euterpe doubles lyric poetry with music, (there is a whole other blog in that pairing).  The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology has some additional information
Muse v. think, meditate….from Old French muser to ponder or loiter; literally, stay with one’s nose in the air.
(muse muzzle, from Gallo-Romance musa snout).

As the English say, to follow one’s nose.  So is inspiration nothing more than following a hunch?  One moment, there is more punning here, inspiration may be associated with the terms ‘flash’ and ‘brilliance’ but it is also the intake of breath, and we are all aware of that action of drawing breath on a sudden insight, the eureka moment.
The eureka effect (also known as the aha! moment or eureka moment) refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.
This is an unexpected outcome resulting from pondering a problem for a considerable time. Following a period of intense work the person contemplating takes a step back and is “blessed” by an insight which resolves the puzzle, which is often followed by a period of equally intense, and often lengthy, explanation.  Perhaps the “Veni creator” hymn was the vehicle for Mahler’s aha! moment, and the problem may have been more prosaic, “how do I marry counterpoint with a Latin text and still express a world in a symphony?”

This doesn’t help the reader who dropped in on the blog hoping for inspiration, but, take a deep breath, it may do so yet.
Many years ago I was drawn to read Robert Graves “The White Goddess” a book about poetic inspiration.  Being a Welsh speaker I was delighted to see many references to Welsh (and Irish) poetry and intrigued by his vision of religion and nature.  This extract from the Wikipedia entry makes my task a little easier

Graves's The White Goddess deals with goddess worship as the prototypical religion, analysing it largely from literary evidence, in myth and poetry.
Graves admitted he was not a medieval historian, but a poet, and thus based his work on the premise that the
language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse….
Let us not forget the dual role that Euterpe plays.
The self-imposed limit of a thousand words curtails the exploration of this dense and difficult book disregarded by many who may be deterred by its interplay of literal and poetic values.  

Let us summarize the role of and associations with the muse:

The muse is feminine.
Inspiration is of the breath and a realisation preceded by study.
The areas of study are drama and poetry expressed as music and dance, with an awareness of our past, (history), and our place in the greater environment, (astronomy).
It is divine.

At this time of the year many religious groups make great use of lights, I hope that this blog may act as a candle, sparking a little insight here and there.
Have a restful time, whatever your beliefs, and cherish the gifts of music, song and dance.