This Is How I Write Music

I’m in the middle of writing some new songs for the clarinet/piano/drums trio that performed its first gig last week. The gig was lots of fun so, as I mentioned in my last news post, I thought it might be fun to one day write some originals for that instrumentation, a modern take on a classic style, … or something clever like that. Well, “one day” became “right away” when I realized that I needed a recent recording of my songs for the next Canada Council grant deadline. So for all those people who’ve picked up one of my albums and said “By God! How does he come up with such clever, clever songs?!” Here’s your answer…

My creative process hinges on two things:
1. open-mindedness
2. persistence

Open-minded to all musical possibilities/directions and persistence in seeing out ideas as far as you can, even ideas that don’t seem that great at first. I believe that with these two key things (and a basic knowledge of harmony) anyone can write a song. And a good one at that!

So what does this look like you ask? … It looks like this:

I set aside an hour or more and sit down at the piano, and I just start playing chord combinations and snippets of melody. Oftentimes I give myself a creative direction by keeping a visual image in mind such as a place or person, real or imagined, and then try to find melodies and textures that paint a picture, musically, of that image (all the songs on my last album for example were written with people/places/feelings of Shanghai in mind). Either way, this direction is flexible to change at any time.

So where was I? Oh yes, tinkling away at the piano. The chords and melodies start off quite randomly, sometimes I close my eyes and allow my fingers to wander around the keyboard, letting the melodies and disonances just wash over my ears. After about 15 minutes or so of that there’s usually something which will stand out to my ears as sort of interesting. It could be as little as 3 notes of a melody or 2 chords in succession, I call this the “seed” of a composition because it could potentially, with a little nurturing, grow into a song. Or, … after 5 minutes of nurturing the seed may turn out to be moldy and lifeless and thus thrown into the compost. Eventually, however, another seed will materialize and I’ll end up with the beginnings of a new song.

This is the open-mindedness: allowing your imagination to run with the possibilities of where a tiny idea could lead. It also helps to let go of rigid ideals. “This idea has been done already!” “This song isn’t modern enough!” “This song isn’t accessible enough! And this one’s, it’s,… well it’s… too accessible!”

Who cares!? Just shut-up and write some tunes already.

A song “seed”, however, is not a song yet! If I just left it that then I’d have a notebook full of “seeds” and not a damn thing else to show for it. This is where persistence enters into the process: persistence to complete the song inspired by this “seed.” Once I’ve completed the first draft, there will always be numerous revisions. In some cases the revisions will be huge, I’ll sometimes take a new song and decide that I really don’t like the original seed that much BUT I really like the 4 bars at the end, so then those 4 bars become the seed for a new song. Finishing songs is a generally quite a lengthy process for me, I find it both satisfying and exhausting.

I have to credit my Mother for teaching me this artistic process at a very young age. She used to play a game with my Sister and I which involved her drawing a simple shape or a few lines on a piece of paper and then giving us the marker to draw around it. Sometimes there was direction, “draw an animal based on this” and sometimes none at all. Sometimes we drew a simple shape for her and she would create a picture out of it. The key to this game was that we were using our imaginations to give life to a simple idea. These were by far the best composition lessons I ever received and my approach hasn’t changed much since.

I could go on and on about composing but what I’ve explained here is essentially how I approach it. I’m not naturally gifted at composing, I was just fortunate enough to approach it early on as a sort of game to play and this is why I can spend all day writing music without noticing the hours pass.

Now speaking of, I’ve got to go back and write something more for the swing trio. Yes, it’s like a game but it is, after all, my job as well!

Have a great week!
JD

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