in·spi·ra·tion

Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare ‘breathe or blow into,’ from in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense ‘impart a truth or idea to someone.’

Sandro_Botticelli_-_The_Birth_of_Venus_(detail)_-_WGA2772

For the upcoming Elemental concert – Wind – I wanted to create a new work that would tie into our broader exploration of the classical elements, while at the same time play with some of the connotations that the physical element of air, and when in motion wind, bring.

As an amateur student of biblical greek, I have been fascinated by a concept known as Inspiration. It is the idea that the texts of the Bible were literally ‘blown through’ the human writers by God to the papyrus scrolls which recorded them. I think the word inspiration captures a truth about the nature of the creative process. Considering the etymology of the word, we can detect the historical echoes of this idea and I decided that this would be an interesting way to explore the idea of wind.

As a composer, my creative process has always been a combination of discovery and craftsmanship. Every artist knows the struggle of the empty canvas, page, or stone. The emptiness cries out for the impression of a human soul upon it. But writer’s block doesn’t only exist for authors. Artists in every medium are faced with what can feel like the nearly insurmountable barrier of the first stroke of the pen, the first note, the first chisel into the marble. It is in some ways an audacious act to make that first mark into nothingness. A profound act of defiance against a universe that seems all too ready to let us pass by without a trace. But this act requires a flash, or impulse, to impress a photo-negative of our soul into the shapeless materiality that is the world of the blank page before us.

Photo negative re-touching

This is where inspiration comes in. For me, it usually comes both invited but unexpected. As I sit and consider the needs of the hour, in this case the creation of an original work for wind quintet, I meditate on the silence that precedes the first note and ask my inner ear what sort of sounds it will be that break that silence.

And so it arrives, shapeless, unformed, but powerful. It is as if I let a cry loose into a great chasm and eagerly wait to record the echo that will return.  I don’t control it’s shape or it’s timing. I only slow down and open my mind to hear.  I wait for the wind to fill the sail of my ship and begin to blow me onto my destination. I await inspiration.

And, finally, the wind blows. I do not see where it came from, nor do I see it as it passes. I only sense a fragment of musical ideas that seem to be pressing through my imagination trying to be freed. These ideas are not fully formed, but the authentic essence of them tantalizes my mind. The gust of inspiration which truly seems to come from outside my mind becomes a zephyr to propel the ship of craft. Craft is the work that follows the first feeling of the breeze on the cheek. As the wind presses forward, the work of crafting and finding what shape it wants to take, begins. This is the act of composition….taking an incomplete musical impression and shaping into something that can be heard by the ear of other people.

And thus was born this piece, which is a musical journey through this process. Written primarily in a single sitting, this piece follows the arc of musical inspiration through its consummation at the end of the brief trip.

The piece

I begin to follow the path that the wind of idea cuts and a warm aeolian melody rises on the motion. Propelled forward it cuts through the waters and is moved through the Mediterranean sunshine.

But, the craft propelled doesn’t command the wind, and so the work created doesn’t command the inspiration. The working of the ropes, and the tiller, and the wheel, is hard and demanding, and the misapplication of these tools can confound the benefit and motive force of the wind. So the artist works the materials of craft ever mindful that the wrong turn of phrase, instrumentation, or meter can break the line and cause the true essence of the inspired idea to escape away in a clumsy pile of technique and artificial contrivance.

The jumbled working of human will has taken the vessel orthogonally to the wind, and the journey to idea is broken. Somehow the inspiration led to the working of the jumble, but was lost in the process. Now begins the effort to reclaim the momentum of inspiration from the clutches of engineered construction.

800px-De_Windstoot_-_A_ship_in_need_in_a_raging_storm_(Willem_van_de_Velde_II,_1707)

Finally the tendrils of inspiration gently touch the canvas and they begin to flutter again, and what seemed a detour was part of the road.  The wind begins to flow freely through the skeletal framework of the piece and the impetus of the journey is again onward. Our musical journey toward the horizon is again underway. But, it is not unchanged from its season in the doldrums of craft. In fact, the endpoint of the flow of inspiration could only be charted through the waters of foundering struggle.