Thursday, 2 April 2009

Head Or Heart?

I think that teaching composition must be one of the most difficult things you can do. The reason for this is that I believe the process to be incredibly personal, subjective and almost certainly a different experience from individual to individual. 

As someone with a background in teaching I'm sometimes asked if I employ my actual knowledge and reasoning where music's concerned or if I rely purely on instinct and gut reaction. Literally, a case of 'head or heart'?

Well, like I say, it's probably different for everyone, but speaking for myself I have to say that it was a long time before I realised that I had to actually 'switch off ' the teacher inside before anything really creative could come through. In other words, I had to subdue my intellectual reasoning and rely purely on 'autopilot'. At least, to an extent...

I suppose the real breakthrough for me as a writer was discovering the world of alternate tunings. (Incidentally, I must point out at this juncture that I'm not in any way holding myself up as anything other than a 'jobbing guitarist and writer' here. I've long since come to terms with the fact that I am not and definitely never will be another Paul McCartney or Sting!) When I threw out everything I knew about the guitar from a tuning point of view, I had no option but to rely on instinct. I deliberately didn't start the journey all over again and begin to work out scales, modes and chords in whichever tuning I found myself. That would be retrogressive, I thought, as I would begin to intellectualise everything I did once again. Thought processes like, 'shouldn't that chord be a dominant 7th?' or 'you can't do that!' aren't helpful when you're trying to access the creative side of your brain.

For me, a composition starts with the clash or collision of two ideas - it might be a few melody notes that seem to want to be together or two or three chords which somehow sound like they 'belong'. I don't know exactly what it is, but a switch is definitely thrown and the songwriting process begins. From then on in, it gets personal. I have a kind of editing device whereby I never write anything down in the initial stages, figuring that if I can still remember it 24 hours later then it must in some way be memorable enough to build upon and take to the next stage.

That 'next stage' is usually a case of improvising around the idea for ages until it seems to want to go somewhere else. All the time, the intellect is sitting on the sidelines offering 'helpful' observations like, 'ok, that's the verse sorted, now you need a chorus' but I've learned to ignore it. I'm aware of the conventions of traditional song structure, but if we all stuck rigidly to it, we'd all still be musically living in caves.

It helps if I can summon up some kind of visual imagery at this point and coming up with a title certainly helps. If you're involved in finishing something called 'Summer Rain' it tends to help direct you towards the appropriate - a bit like writing a film score for pictures inside your head.

Writing music is a hard process for me; I find writing books a breeze by comparison! But it's an immensely rewarding process when you come out with something that somehow works and something which is definitely a part of you. By that time, of course, all the birth pains have been long forgotten and I'm often left wondering where melodies and chord sequences have sprung from. But I don't want to analyse my own music, write it out, or even talk about it too much. The most surprising thing is that I don't want to teach what I do on acoustic guitar as I think that would invite the intellect back to the party and I'd lose the power to engage autopilot. And I don't want that to happen!

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