On Key Moments In Composing

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Each time you sit down at the computer and the keyboard to compose it feels as if you have no prior experience to draw on. Even though all your conscious knowing tells you that this can’t be the case, you’re beginning as if from scratch, facing the empty screen without being able recall the hundreds of tracks you’ve already recorded and meticulously edited down to their nano structures. Sigh.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a default way of thinking, or is it a self-imposed constraint to focus yourself on the present? Either way, because you can’t recall what you’ve already done you hunker down with the unlikely prospect of doing something significant today. Your quiet desperation is registered as you pull in your chair a bit, wipe off some dust from the keyboard, stretch the hands. Sigh. But this is a key moment in the process because in momentarily forgetting your creative past and at a loss for what to do right now you’ve adapted a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset, resigned to the reality that you’re not much improved since the last time you sat down to face down musical uncertainty. It’s a key moment because you’ve almost—but not quite—given up before you’ve begun. Usually we construe this kind of mindset as a species of negative thinking, but negative thinking in doses is not necessarily bad. In this case, your almost—but not quite—giving up frees yourself from self-imposed and unnecessary expectations derived from your past outcomes or imagined futures. A whatever happens happens mindset as you sit in front of your computer and keyboard is a perfectly imperfect state in which to dwell for a while. You’ve tapped into something priceless: attention unmodulated by assumptions.

It took a few minutes, but it’s only now, with your attention unmodulated, that you bring your hands to the keyboard. Evidently your hands didn’t fully absorb the lessons of your whatever happens happens mindset and they immediately move along their old pathways, finding friendly routes through g and d-minor maybe, or staying safe within F major. But your hands are just scared and need a little push. You ask them why they so often ignore D-flat and F-sharp or any of those terrains over the black, mountainous accidentals. This is not to say that you’re conscious of keys and scales all the time. You’re just trying to point out to your hands that, from where you sit, the terrain is wide open. Go explore a bit! This frees up the hands and now they roam. This is a second key moment because your hands have almost—but not quite—given up trying to make any definitive musical statements. They have permission to stay local or travel far, but either way it’s just messing around. It doesn’t count. No one cares what happens. It’s just music. Just do whatever seems interesting. And so it goes for a while, as your hands bounce around and you follow them. In your state of pure attention, no one—not you, not your hands, not your computer or your keyboard—really cares about what is happening.

Which brings us to a third key moment where not really caring transforms itself instantaneously into…caring deeply. Boom! Something happened—the hands fell into something and now you’re woke. It could be a dissonance, or a rhythm, or a symmetry. Playtime’s over, folks. Forget what you did yesterday or what you might do tomorrow—this thing here, right here, is something special, no? Your quiet desperation is now sure-footedness. Boom! Now you have goal and a purpose which is to flesh out the possibilities of this something the hands fell into—mobilize its potentials as quickly as possible before the magic dissipates. You’re like the mother whose child is trapped underneath the car who summons a bolt of energy to do some heavy lifting. What you thought was a quiet resignation, a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset was not a lack of confidence or some calculated Zen move. No, you were saving your quality energy for this pivotal moment where you can rescue what may be a good idea from being crushed under the world’s indifference.

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