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!

The Space Between

Breathe out, breathe in, Balanced in the space between.
Silence, stillness, Until the breath moves through again.
~ from “Breath” by Lynn Emberg Purse ©2012

A few weeks ago, in Breathe In, Breathe Out – I wrote about “Breath” – the piece I composed this spring as part of a larger piece The Four Elements. Deeply immersed in recording “Breath” this past week, I’ve also found the lyrics to this song moving from my head as an ongoing mantra to flooding my creative veins and taking over my life.  It’s not only about remembering to breathe, it is about finding balance in “the space between.”

So what is “the space between”? When I practice deep breathing, I often imagine the astonishing amount of open space in our atomic structure, the space between the photons and electrons and neutrons, the vast space between the cellular structure of our bodies.

But I also think of the idea of liminal space.

Threshold between gardens

The term “liminal space” comes from the Latin word līmen, which in part signifies the boundary between one space and another, meaning that “betwixt and between” space, the threshold of a door or the threshold between stages of life. This is not a new idea by any means – consider the practice of carrying a bride over the threshold, of the ceremonies involved in the rite of passage from one stage of life to another, the superstitions and ritual practices surrounding the opening and closing of doors, windows, and other passageways. In garden design, the liminal structures of gates, archways and paths become the defining elements of the garden and invite the visitor to move through the space rather than look at it from a distance.

The “space between” – liminal space – also has deeply spiritual and metaphysical connotations. In Christian traditions, liminal space is the sacred space occupied by those seeking the presence of God, either as individuals or as a group gathered in worship. Like breathing in and out, one enters into a space of infinite possibilities, then leaves refreshed to engage in the world. For a thoughtful blog about this, see Rev. Jeff Johnson’s Liminal Space, especially his reflection on the day after Easter.

Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, had this to say about liminal space. “Nothing good or creative emerges from business as usual. This is why much of the work of God is to get people into liminal space, and to keep them there long enough so they can learn something essential. It is the ultimate teachable space.. maybe the only one. Most spiritual giants try to live lives of “chronic liminality” in some sense. They know it is the only position that insures ongoing wisdom, broader perspective and ever-deeper compassion. The Jewish prophets… St. Francis, Gandhi, and John the Baptist come to mind.”

Window on the galaxy

As an artist and musician, I am always seeking the point of entry to liminal space which, for me, is the marker of creative engagement. Quantum physics suggests that all possibilities exist until observation or intention selects one possibility which then becomes “the” reality. As a composer, this is exactly the process through which I move. I start with an idea, I do research and entertain many possibilities, then I withdraw into that “space between” to let everything cook and stew while I seek to become quiet and receptive and balanced.  I stand on the threshold, poised but not ready to commit.  Stepping through the threshold, moving from possibility to a chosen act or decision, always seems the most difficult part – actually stepping through and be willing to choose “this” but not “that” becomes an act of creative courage.

A series of thresholds

Of course, that is only the first step; it is actually a series of decisions, reflections, and more decisions, an ongoing process of stepping into a threshold, a liminal space, then continuing on through the process, over and over again.  Singer/songwriter and artist Joni Mitchell once drew an analogy between painting and composing – when the painting was finished, it was finished, but the music demanded an ongoing commitment to bring it to life – this is probably true of all performing arts. (Photo courtesy of Joka2000 on Flickr)

The next time I post, I hope to have a piece of music to share. (You can now hear the music for Breath) For now, I stand poised on another threshold, seeking the silence and stillness between breaths that nourishes me, balances me and leads me to the next step, through the next doorway.

Reality is that place between the sea and the foam. Irish Proverb