Come and Knock On My Door
Composing music isn’t always some fuzzy, mystical process, so why does the myth of the divine muse still hold sway over how people perceive the music?
I’m totally uninspired right now, but it’s my sworn duty to post something to this blog today, so I have to just buck up and do it. Okay, here we go with this week’s sweeping statement: I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on. Last night I was among those feeling the pressure to deliver, namely the visual arts graduate students at Hunter College who held their thesis exhibition opening. The event happens to attract a lot of attention in the local contemporary art scene; no pressure here guys.
Usually student work tends to be rather stylistically derivative of well-known established figures, but I only saw one Dana Schutz wannabe among the soon-to-be graduates—the rest were all quite original. As you can imagine, it must be hard to be a young visual artist faced with the fatal taboo of unoriginality in depicting, say, Campbell soup cans or Brillo boxes in your own work, only to site one example. But I have to say that we composers might even have a more difficult charge, and it boils down to romanticizing inspiration.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is riddled with stories about what inspired its famed leitmotif, and most have to do with big ideas verging on the meaning-of-life mantel. But what if those descending minor thirds were the result of bite marks left by a mutated chipmunk or a bowl of Cheerios? Is a piece of music somehow better if it has inspiration behind it? How much does the mythology surrounding said inspiration change public opinion of the piece? In the end, nobody except the artist who created the work is in a position to determine if something contains anything resembling inspiration in the first place.
Granted, my own musical work is inspired by things—but tangible things like the contours of coastlines, hairdos, etc.—not by highfalutin grandeur that only exists somewhere way beyond the clouds, the stuff which provides the lone possible explanation as to what makes figures like Beethoven so inarguably great. This is a spiritualized, over-exaggerated notion of how inspiration actually comes into play. Certainly, we shouldn’t be twiddling our thumbs waiting for fate to knock on our door here. Composing music isn’t always some fuzzy, mystical process, so why does the myth of the divine muse still hold sway over how people perceive the music? Doesn’t the fetishization of inspiration hurt the arts and the people who create it?