I was lucky enough to receive some Arts Council funding from a new strand they’ve recently launched called ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’.
It’s all about giving arts practitioners time to explore one particular area in-depth. I proposed that I would embark on a year-long project composing new music for four different sized ensembles. The outcome would be four sets of music accompanied by four separate day-long workshop sessions with the musicians, which I would record as a document. Each ensemble would be a different size to the band I’m used to composing for: my quintet, Entropi. So I decided that I would write for a duo, quartet, sextet and dectet.
In December, at the start of the project, I thought I would be doing project planning for the year, contacting musicians, booking rehearsal rooms and sitting down to compose music for one of these four ensembles. A very organised and logical approach. This is not what happened. In this blog post, I’ll outline what I’ve learnt so far in the hope that it might inspire you to think about how you approach your music-making, composing and improvising.
Up till now, my composing has been ‘on demand’ for a very specific reason. Normally it’s a gig with my band where we need an extra two tunes to have enough original material for the whole gig, or I need to write one more composition for a recording. The process has often been quite stressful and close to the wire. I’d find myself up late trying to finish a tune off for a rehearsal the next day with my band. Fear played a great part in getting the thing done and I didn’t find the process very enjoyable. When I started this project I did not want to compose in this way, so I forced myself to find another way to go about writing music. This has been quite unexpected.
A book came into my hands called ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which talked about nurturing and unblocking creativity. While reading the book I realised that I was quite creatively blocked when it came to composing. You know when you are blocked when you avoid doing the thing - whatever that is, writing a novel, painting or in my case composing and then make up a load of excuses in your mind about why you can’t do it. I realised that I hadn’t really seriously addressed the practice of composition. Often when I did sit down to write, I’d have an inner critical voice saying: ‘what is this piece of rubbish?’ This is no way to get into the zone and be creative!
Improvisers compose in real time all the time. As an alto sax player who is extremely into free improvisation and jazz, I normally have no problem coming up with ideas and essentially making stuff up on the spot. This is just because I have done it a lot, so it feels comfortable for me to do so. A large part of improvising in any kind of music is interaction with the other band members, listening, reacting, developing ideas all in the moment. To be able to do that you need to be far away from the critical mind and right in the flow of ideas. I wanted to be able to recreate this feeling while composing new music.
In the book ‘Big Magic’, Elizabeth Gilbert talks finding our creativity by following what makes us curious. I realised that I wanted to do some visual art. So I proceeded to spend an hour a day doing A5 sized pieces of colourful abstract art. The rules were: do it everyday and be non-judgmental about the outcome. In other words value the process and not the result. This was hugely beneficial for me: because I am not trained in art, I had no real value judgements on my choices of colour, shape or line. I just did it every day for a month. Over the weeks, I started to notice that this art activity was having a positive effect on the way I was improvising on the saxophone. I was applying the freedom I was experiencing on the blank canvas to music.
As musicians, we spend a lot of time learning and practicing technique. Obviously this is very important, but I feel that we can sometimes forget to engage with the side of music which is artistic. As musicians we are all creative artists, but do we always feel like that? Expressing ourselves through music is probably the reason why we all started playing in the first place. This must be something to nurture as much as achieving technical prowess on the instrument, I think. In January I switched the visual art sketches to musical sketches - using the same system: one hour a day and no judging what ideas come out. It is much harder to ignore the critical mind when shifting the creative process to something we HAVE trained in.
But I had developed a non-judgmental muscle through doing the artwork the previous month. When starting a piece of visual art, it was very unhelpful to question ‘why did you use that colour?’ so using that same principle I trained myself to stop questioning every single choice of chord, melody note, bassline, theme and just let the music unfold - much like improvising. Over time, ideas started to flow more freely when I stopped putting so much pressure on myself. I shifted the focus away from outcome towards process. In the month of January I have composed 16 musical ‘sketches’.
My website is: deebyrnemusic.com if you are interested in what projects I’m involved with and where I might be playing next. Thanks for reading this and I hope to share some of these compositions with you in the future! Dee Byrne