What Lies Beneath

Two weeks ago, I premiered the piece “Breath” on this blog, as both a music video and an mp3 download.  Photographer and fellow blogger Kerry of Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog made a comment that has been circling in my mind ever since.

“I remain in awe of what it takes–the synthesis–to create something like this. It’s difficult, bordering on impossible, for me to fathom.”

Since Kerry generously posts about his approach/creative process to landscape photography, I thought I might try the same for the creation of “Breath” in a way that hopefully anyone can understand. Since I teach composition, I have had to become more aware of the compositional process – and I learn more about my own process each time I  “deconstruct” a piece.

The Idea/Inspiration
For me, a musical idea is often triggered by an event or a powerful moment or insight. In this case, “Breath” is part of a larger suite of pieces making up The Four Elements.  I was inspired to use the idea of breath for the element of air from three sources; one was my yoga practice and the deep breathing that it teaches.  The second was watching the leaves on the trees around my house dancing in the wind, as if the earth was breathing in and out. The third was a video of experimental composer and performance artist Pamela Z, who used her breath against sheets of metal in “Metal Voice” from “Voci.”  So, all I knew starting out was that there would be breath sounds and the text would explore the meaning of breath, while the music would try to capture the rhythm of leaves moving in the wind as well as the silence between breaths.

The Research
I explored many concepts and ideas about breath and was surprised to find that across most cultures and religions, a word for breath existed that meant not only the physical act of breathing but a metaphysical act of breath – “breath of life, breath of energy”- a means of connection with a greater spiritual power. Many pages of notes later, I found certain phrases and words coming up over and over again, and from those writings, a rough draft of lyrics was created. This could be compared to scouting a location for photography or exploring a historical period for a story and creating an outline from notes.

Letting It Cook

An under-rated part of the creative process is gathering all of these ideas and letting them simmer beneath the conscious mind, just like giving bread dough enough time to rise. Ideas would percolate while I was working in the garden, driving in the car, walking the dog and I began to get a sense of the rhythm of the words and music.  If I move to the piano or the computer too soon, before I hear the music internally, my hands compose instead of my head, and I end up falling into automatic habits, not unlike taking the highway exit to go to work out of habit when you really are headed somewhere else. So I have learned to allow everything to slowly simmer and come together internally before I begin the actual writing process. If I wait long enough, the piece takes on a life and rhythm of its own that I then follow like a story unfolding.

Committing to Paper
If I am writing a song, lyrics almost always come first but their rhythm and inflection become quickly bonded with musical ideas. A rough sketch of lyrics and the idea that I wanted to have a “world music” sound that was inspired by gamelan music started the process and tied it to the other pieces in The Four Elements. Gamelan music is played mainly on percussion instruments and consists of many overlapping patterns of notes called ostinatos.  Combining different patterns creates a floating rhythmic quality without an obvious strong beat, similar to the way an artist might layer color after color to create a complex but subtle painting.  Here is a short video that explains how I created the rhythmic elements that underpin the piece. 

The Final Mix
After the premiere of “Breath” by my student electronic ensemble, I returned to the original arrangement and began to customize it for my own performance and recording. Several days of experimentation in my studio produced synthesizer tracks that were then taken into the audio studio for adding voice, bass, and other tracks.  Many test mixes were created for listening on many different sound systems, from the living room stereo to the car CD player to sound systems in music stores. My husband, who has golden ears, fantastic technical skills, and boundless patience, filled the role of audio engineer and producer admirably. A final upload of the piece to CD Baby completed the audio project.

I hope you enjoyed the”behind the scenes” explanation of how I compose music.  Next week, I’ll talk about the video I created for “Breath” – and show you what didn’t make the cut!

39 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath

  1. Fascinating, and wonderful. Since I have no real musical talent (other than an appreciation of music), I’ve often wondered how composers come up with their ideas and sounds. Thank you for taking us through your creative process. 🙂

  2. “The ability of someone to choose and arrange the details of their creative field guided by a vision is a major hallmark of a genius” -John Briggs.

    You, Lynn, are a genius. Not sure what I enjoyed more? The dissection of your beautiful process; your music or your video. Together, they are a symphonic experience for the soul. Thank you for visiting my new blog http://seedsonfertilesoil.wordpress.com/ . The pleasure of this acquaintance is all mine! -Caryn

    • Caryn, thank you for visiting and commenting and for your high praise. Not sure about the genius part, I am just passionate about what I do and delighted that the music touched you. I am so impressed with your new blog, what you are trying to do with Community Gardens and your generous philosophy. I look forward to seeing the progression of your new venture.

  3. A fabulous and fascinating insight. As one who also lacks the musical gene, to hear it explained in your own words gives me a greater sense of both you an d your music. I’m off to watch the video now – with thanks!

  4. Wow – just wow…. loved the explanation and the breakdown – I can hear the gamelan influence now that you pointed it out – and I even researched as I watched the video (for terms like ostinato)! This kind of analysis is what is missing from so many artists work – understanding ones creative process is just as interesting as the final work I believe. I wish you do break down some Bach fugues for me – that would be fun 🙂

    • David, thanks for the great comments! I enjoyed doing this and actually had a few insights in the process of thinking about it and writing it – sometimes I don’t realize I know something until I try to explain it to someone else. Probably one of the reasons I enjoy teaching 🙂

      On the subject of Bach, I used to use one of his three part inventions to demonstrate MIDI sequencing and how easily you could turn a piece upside down, inside out, and backwards. Of course, Bach’s music still sounded great, and recognizable, no matter how it was transformed.

    • Hmmm, good question! It is almost never the technical issues – they are solvable. I think the sticking point for me is worrying about what others might think of the piece (i.e, will anyone like it. is it too complicated, too ordinary, etc. etc.) If I do that, I become outer directed instead of inner directed and I become paralyzed OR I write something that I end up throwing away later. I have actually thrown out a few pieces and started over! I’ve gotten better about recognizing the “fear” moment when it happens and letting it go; I try not to go down that road any more 🙂

  5. Lynn, that’s one of the most–if not THE most–interesting blog entries I can ever recall having read. The deconstruction video was most appreciated and helpful to someone like myself who clearly lacks the “musical gene.”

    That personal shortcoming of mine notwithstanding, I could still relate quite strongly to some of the creative metaphors used in the piece by applying them to the photographic process (scouting, et al) and writing (allowing ideas to percolate, etc.). Truly fascinating stuff!

    Thanks very much for taking the time to put this together; it’s educational and inspirational.

    • Kerry, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, especially as it was inspired by your comment! I had great fun putting together the video, so I’m glad it made sense to you. It was a fun project to take on and I learned even more about my own process – nothing like explaining something to understand it more fully 🙂

  6. to simmer and peculate makes your creative process sound very tasty , then the results becomes a feast. Thanks for a look inside your kitchen. It also gave me a peek into putting sound onto my computer which is a total mystery! Fabulous post.

    • Thanks, Carol – you’ve pointed out my other set of metaphors, all food related! It’s true that when I’m working in the garden, I think in terms of cooking, and when I’m composing I think of gardening. 🙂

  7. Well, that was the most interesting blog I’ve read and listened to so far. I liked that video of Metal Voice and loved the typewriter effect and that gamelan music needs more exploration I think I will have to explore You Tube more. Thank you for fascinating insights on how this type of music is made.

    • Chris, thanks for taking the time to explore the links – I’m a huge fan of Pamela Z and I’m delighted that you enjoyed her work. That gamelan clip is amazing, since it is the real thing, a rehearsal rather than a “prepared” show. YouTube is a great resource – I have to watch how much time I spend there!

  8. Lynn, thanks so much for taking the time to make that video. I so enjoyed the rhythm of the piece and found it very helpful to see it taken apart in that way. And thanks for being so generous with your creative process. A bonus composition lesson! Looking forward to your next “behind the scenes” video! -Joe D.

  9. “An under-rated part of the creative process is gathering all of these ideas and letting them simmer beneath the conscious mind, just like giving bread dough enough time to rise.”

    One surprise for the creator and sometimes for the audience, is how a jumble of ideas get sorted out in a unique composition. Did doing the reseach about breath across all cultures, change your musical composition (not just the lyrics)?

    The other angle at this: is how a person who is undertaking vigorous exercise, would imagine breathing. It must fill their whole psyche at critical points of their performance.

  10. This article is very inspiring and has alot of depth to it. It’s exciting to get a glimpse into the workings of a composer, i’m going to take some of this with me when i start to work on my next tune.

  11. I love the explanation of the percolate process. It is such a valuable tool, and what better place to let it happen than in the garden.

  12. thank you so much for this behind the scenes look at your creation. I resonate to allowing things to “simmer” as its the same word I use to describe the writing process. I often leave a creative idea to simmer on the back burner for a while till it is ready to serve. what a lot of work, of thought, of conscious creation goes into your work. This makes me appreciate it all the more and gives me a glimpse of the true depth of its beauty.

    • Joss, thanks for your kind words. I think that simmering process is probably a big part all creative work. Supposedly, the right side of the brain is responsible for pulling together all the disparate elements of an idea and making sense of them in new ways – I try to remember that and give it room to do its work 🙂

  13. Wonderful “walk-through” of the creative process, Lynn, and I soooo agree with the “percolation” stage, allowing the rich humus of the unconscious to fertilize, turn over, combine, create, and send up inspiration (hard to get away from those “breath” words once you start!)…It’s interesting you mentioned that driving is sometimes a time/place of synthesis for you. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. Gardening works for me, too, and showering! Or a dream…This is a wonderful blog post: so generous-spirited and fertile: thank you! ~ Kitty

  14. Hi Lynn,
    I LOVE the piece, but I think I love it even more with this explanation! I feel like I’ve been in your garden. I just came in from working in mine, and yours is MUCH more beautiful!

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