When I talk to outsiders (ie non-colleagues) about how this works, composing, the question invariably arises: do you sometimes wake up at night with a musical approach, with 'inspiration'?
For many a composer still hangs a vague veil of matured romance, whereby the artist seems to have to go through deep mental and financial troughs before he can make something worthwhile. The other persistent misunderstanding that - at least in my case - seems to have taken hold is that composers sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea, a motif, or a theme that frolics through the sleepy head, and that wants out.
Well, I wake up regularly at night, but that's usually to get rid of something else. Musical themes are rarely if ever included. In fact, if they are included, I have noticed, they are usually not great and I better flush them right away.
That's not to say that while lying in bed and waiting for sleep, you can't think about certain songs you're doing. But these are generally the more practical issues that you as a composer have to deal with: the pitch or structure of a song, a text or an arrangement. I don't remember ever having been able to make the world a joyful place when I was sleeping, with a brilliant inspiration that helped me later. I am among those who simply have to sit down in the morning, noon, or evening. Only.
So that question can be answered quite simply with: no, almost never. But what really gets me into trouble is: "How do you do that, composing?"
I can hang all kinds of complicated stories, but the real answer is that I don't really know. And that is quite disconcerting, if you realize that it has been your most important activity for several decades.
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This is therefore not believed. Haha, people laugh, of course you know what you are doing. It is only false modesty!
Nope. Of course, it can help if you can write notes, if you know how chords are structured, and know the tonal range of instruments. But those are technical aspects of the profession. Even if you are a-musical and tone deaf, you can still learn that. But there is a source that drives that. Without that source, which we will call inspiration for a moment, all that knowledge is useless. Thanks to technical know-how and experience, you can certainly get that inspiration on the way. And learn to recognize. But you cannot count on it. It can stay away without you knowing why. For a while, or if you're unlucky, for years. The so-called writer's block.
There are things that can inspire you, that can open up the source. I call love, of course, money (yes, let's write a swimming pool, Lennon and McCartney seem to have said to each other when it became clear to them that making songs can make a lot of money), setback, life, loss, death. Note here that the negative things of life prevail. Winning the lottery is fun, but you are soon deregistered as a composer. In fact, I can imagine that this is the reason why you will take it easy.
A good text can sometimes help. Kayak generally put the music first, then the lyrics. When I wrote my first Dutch songs, I noticed that it could be the other way around. By the way, that was in 1975, with 'Boezem' on a text by Harry Mulisch, for a project called Zing Je Moerstaal. It had to be in the mid-eighties before I could try it again in Dutch. That was when Youp van 't Hek asked me to make music for his program' Verloren en Verlaten '.
A good example in this context, in which the writing was almost automatic, is 'Mister Alzheimer', with music written on a text by the same Youp. The writing of that music took about as long as the song itself: about 3 minutes. Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, because if the framework of such a song is there, you always have to plan, and make small improvements or variations and that can take an hour. But Mister Alzheimer was one of those lyrics where I immediately "saw" the song. Atmosphere, tempo, meter, it was absolutely clear where it was going. In this case, hearing seems more appropriate, but it is really a combination of inner seeing and hearing.
What I still ask myself: where did that song 'Lyrics' suddenly come from, the first single by Kayak? That song I wrote when I was 19 or 20. turned out to be - and still is - my style of writing. It took some practice, but not that much, actually. And the strange thing is that nothing essential has changed in all those years since then. I've really learned a few things since then - but apparently there was already something that made it possible for me to write something like this without knowing exactly where it came from, let alone where I wanted to go. That's not a beating, or vanity. Compared to disproportionate geniuses such as Bach and Mozart, my work is completely insignificant - calling myself in one sentence with them is already very difficult. But the core, where it comes from, is the same.
I don't want to analyze the phenomenon of inspiration too much. First, it is impossible, because it is deeply elusive. But it also has a strange, arguable side: composing means 'composing' in a language-technical sense. In western music, we have 12 tones at our disposal, which we can put together in a different way behind and above each other, in other words. But, and here it comes: despite the staggering amount of possible variations, there are a limited number of possibilities - most of which probably isn't worth hearing.
You have to see that 'limited' very broadly, of course, because just like the amount of stars in the universe, that number is far beyond our understanding. But all possible pieces of music are actually there - only they will never all be written. I think being able to see some of those possibilities is the core of inspiration. We don't know anything yet, but I like to philosophize about that.
Floated enough. Next time about my upcoming solo album, and which of that large amount of not yet written music will end up there.