What is inspiration? What is that spark that ignites our thoughts and makes it possible for us, creative artists, to produce a work of art where there was nothing before? A walk in the woods, a book, a movie, or even a look at the night sky can all serve as sources of inspiration and elicit the most original thoughts within our minds; but the concept of inspiration itself is far more elusive. Where does it originate and is it absolutely essential for the creation of new art?
Inspiration is, for me, a fully physical, mental, and spiritual experience. It may manifest itself in ways similar to the surge of energy that one feels while deep in meditation, when –for a brief moment- reality reveals itself as an endless stream of interconnected events. It is transcendental, existing in a realm beyond time and space, and it is unique and unrepeatable. It may come in a dream, while daydreaming, or while deeply concentrated in one’s work; and it can happen spontaneously, after hours of unconscious laboring by our mind, which never ceases to work.
It would be naïve, though, to think that it is eagerly trying to reach us. It does not gratuitously knock on our doors and it does not visit the undeserving. One has to earn its presence by tirelessly showing up to work every day and one can’t wait for it to show up before starting a new project. It may come at the beginning or at the middle, and chances are we might arrive to the double bar without having being graced with its presence at all. I have written works that were the result of long hours of hard work where I poured all my knowledge and technique without ever feeling inspired. Such is the life of a professional composer. It doesn’t mean I like those works any less and I might love them even more precisely because their birth was so incredibly laborious. But there are other works during which I felt that unmistakable spark, and such was the elation I experienced that I couldn’t help but getting off my seat and jumping in joy or bursting into tears. These very personal ‘eureka’ moments, which I am now candidly sharing, might not be frequent but they are one of the reasons why I keep doing why I do. They make me feel real, in the full sense of the word, and they make me feel connected to everything else. These moments come accompanied with a musical “embryo”; it may be a short melody, motif, theme, rhythmic pattern, or interval sequence, but they feel inexplicably complete in the sense that they come filled with an enormous potential waiting to be unraveled. This moment lasts for a few seconds, but it can give enough material for a whole composition. It is then the job of the composer to bring about this idea to its full potential and this is when years of learning and discipline kick in.
Take for example the classic Theme and Variations form. The greatest composers have always used this particular form as a great muscle-flexing exercise. Think of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. They start with a simple theme that serves as “inspiration”, but what really makes those works great is not the themes themselves, but what Bach and Beethoven did with them. In the same manner, one may experience the most incredible moment of inspiration accompanied with the most brilliant of melodies or motifs, but if the composer is not equipped with a formidable arsenal of tools to chisel and shape it, that melody won’t reach a fraction of its true potential. Perhaps the most celebrated motif of all time is that of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. With only four notes he created a full symphony, and I am pretty confident that he could see it all unfolding at once, although judging from Beethoven’s sketches, we know that writing that symphony was not an easy task whatsoever.
It is often the case that young composers delight in showing their prowess by displaying an enormous palette of materials within a single piece (take for example Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet, written when the composer was 16 years old) but, in general, when they grow older, they become more economic and concise. This is a sign of confidence and maturity, and it shows that they have arrived to a point where they have understood and internalized the phrase “less is more” and have learned to effectively focus their efforts on a few ideas until they are perfectly polished. Works created under this mindset feel round, solid, and self-contained, and they are usually produced in the more mature years. When composers reach this stage, they don’t rely anymore so much on the musical ideas themselves (at that point even the most simple of melodies can serve as inspiration), what really counts now is how their minds can mold and transform practically any material that comes their way. They become alchemists, making gold out of anything they touch. It may seem as if all of this might diminish the importance of inspiration, but the truth is when this level of craft and the highest inspiration are combined, the results can be the equivalent of a spiritual revelation. These are the works that have borne the test of time and remained in history for decades and centuries.
Tracing the origin of inspiration itself is frankly not that relevant in the end. Every human being has experienced it at some point in his or her life, perhaps while witnessing the birth of a child, the death of a relative, or in a deep moment of prayer or meditation. What artists, and specifically composers, do differently is being able to share it with others. Experiences like the ones I just mentioned elicit the strongest emotions in us, and as a composer I strive to communicate and rouse these feelings in other human beings as well. For that to happen not only must the music material be good, but also the composer must be able to harness and subject it to a process of transmutation, and that’s when all those years of training, knowledge and hard work come to play. We can’t count on inspiration to show up every time we write a new piece, but we must always be ready when it does. We must strive to be the best possible vessels and we can only achieve this with discipline and hard work by, for example, keeping the habit of writing every day. This, in turn, will help us achieve fluency in our writing. Most importantly, we must remember that we are not simply receptacles but that our ultimate aim must be to become alchemists of sound. Whatever we do and however we do it, inspiration must never be taken for granted. It will come to us when it must; all we can do in the meantime is keep writing with deep love and devotion for our art.