‘a wild and dangerous celebration of E flat major’

How do modern composers write music? No, not compose but physically write their notes down nowadays? Gone are the times when a composer would ink-scribble motifs illegibly on paper for musicologists to puzzle over centuries later; or when anonymous scribes would hand-set mensural notation amongst gold-leaf, margined adornments in beautiful folios. Today, we have Sibelius and MIDI keyboards which enable us to compose as we play, with software so intelligent it can do the harmonisation for us. Where does that leave the composition process?

Taking one step backwards, what is the compositional process? What does it mean to be creative today? If you are a full-time writer, artist or musician, do you create every minute of every hour of every day? And, by comparison, if art isn’t your profession, can you still find creativity in your ‘day job’?

Most of us aren’t professional artists – myself included. I miss being creative so am eager to understand what it means to be creative in my daily life. But I also want to understand what physical set-up I need in order to be creative – a concept I have termed ‘creative infrastructure’.

In a recent article in the London Review of Books (25 October 2018), composer Nico Muhly describes what he needs to write his music. And, as it turns out, he doesn’t need to wander through the atmospheric streets of Rome; nor does he need to delve into historic, dusty manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. He needs a good pencil, a rotational computer screen, a MIDI keyboard, a desk on which to fit this equipment and, most importantly, an impressively robust filing system. This is his creative infrastructure. How romantic does that sound?

For Muhly, ‘the primary task…is to create a piece of art that is better than the same amount of silence; I would prefer to sit silently thinking for ten minutes than to listen to certain pieces of music’. He starts by mapping out the structure of the whole composition before he puts pen to paper, comparing this process with the in-flight map shown on airplane seat screens: initially the map shows you your current position in the context of the whole Earth – but then you can zoom in to see how you are above small villages that you have never heard of. He stresses the importance of not focussing too much on the minute detail – the villages – or you will get lost in the vastness of your own composition.

Of course, when you are in the midst of composing something, the possibilities of where you might go next can seem endless. This can be daunting. But instead, Muhly suggests we should embrace the scope for difference in interpretation. ‘A piece of music can and should exist as a space in which all manner of emotional itineraries are possible…a piece of live music unfolds in real time, and is experienced by a roomful of people at precisely the same moment, but should mean different things to each of them’. He describes feeling a kind of hunger for questions that arise as he embarks upon research, and a thirst to answer these questions. Such questions lead to more questions and more compositional possibilities, not unlike getting lost in a labyrinth of Wikipedia pages.

Now we know a little about how Muhly approaches composing music – but what does that mean in terms of daily work? ‘The tragedy and luxury of my life is that I travel a great deal’ – so Muhly’s challenge is to make a physical infrastructure that enables him to switch on his creativity when he needs to. He writes records the initial composition idea in a computer document saved with a ‘.’ at the beginning of the file name so it is top of the list of files in the relevant folder. He saves his research-into-possibilities documents in this same folder. Yet ‘if the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a [physical] slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again’. Muhly keeps lots of these physical folders full of compositions at various different stages. ‘The folders accompany me everywhere…[and] are a reminder of that endless possibility of what they might become’. What stimulates his creativity is the ability to literally hold the ideas in his hands. Who knew A4 folders could be so inspiring?

You may be thinking that this is Muhly just being organised; that to succeed as a composer, he has to be just as efficient with his filing systems as the rest of us. But what came across in this article was a drive to work; an overwhelming sense of joy to communicate how he makes his music; and a sense of giddiness in the experience of being inspired by others. For Muhly, John Adams’s Harmonielehre is, for example, a ‘long flight from a relentless rhythmic unison E minor via a Wagnerian prism to an ecstatic combination of grid and a wild and dangerous celebration for E flat major’.

Distilling the essence of creativity

This last sentence encapsulates the sense of giddiness I felt when I read this article. I was engrossed in Muhly’s vivid descriptions and the insight into the inner-workings of an inherently creative mind. Yet I was also inspired and heartened to read that, like the rest of us, Muhly not only relies on but thinks about ergonomic desks and paper folders. This led me, in turn, to consider what I need in my daily life to be inspired and motivated to do my job, and produce An Inkling too.

I am a charity fundraiser. To do my job, I need the combination of the art of conversation and the ability to write. However, as I discovered early on, there is seemingly limited creativity in writing grant applications. You are bound by the stricture of prescribed questions, word-counts and guidelines.

But then I started to see the charm and challenge in working to these parameters. Fundraising is about communicating in the clearest possible way what the ‘need’ is and how your charity is best-placed to address this need. There is a logic to a good application – in just the same way that there is logic required to the well-reasoned arguments articles in An Inkling. Get the trustees agreeing with your logic and you stand a much better chance of successfully convincing them that yours is the cause worth supporting.

My creative infrastructure

I like a good notebook with nice paper that I can use to work out the logic of my problems. I write in a green fountain pen because I love the colour and find fountain pens are much easier on the hand. I give myself ‘doodling time’ every day to let my brain breathe. And I start the day with yoga, a cup of coffee and a London Review of Books article because this is my time to be inspired by the world around me. I love the feeling of my brain stretching as I read excellent writing and absorb new knowledge.

Creativity is a huge part of what it means to be human. Whether you play computer games, read, or binge-watch Netflix in your spare time, what you are experiencing and appreciating is human creativity. We place value – economic and social – on the power of creativity, so it’s a powerful and amazing discovery to realise how creative we are being in our daily lives. 

I’d like to encourage everyone to experience this realisation. To do this, I’m appealing to An Inkling’s readers to answer a few short questions designed to get you thinking about how you are creative. Your answers, with your approval and anonymity if you wish, will be shared with An Inkling’s audience to encourage and inspire others to think in this way.

Your individual input matters. Please get in touch with me with me (aninklingjournal@gmail.com) today to receive this questionnaire.

Let’s harness the power of acknowledging and understanding our personal creative infrastructures.