Creating a catalogue

I don’t really listen to playlists.

I still listen to records chronologically.

That may mean I’m a bit of an oddity in my generation, but I love listening to and appreciating the journey that has endeavoured to make a 40-60 minute musical journey that is sophisticated from start to finish.

When I find an artist I really like, I then start to explore the catalogue, I want to know all of the work they’ve made from their greats, to their goods to their not so good stuff.

The evolution of artists is fascinating and usually the ones I really like have kept on changing direction and exploring creative facets. Peter Gabriel’s career from Genesis to his solo material is fascinating.

I love the idea of creating a catalogue of work that I myself have done it and thus far have five to my name, with many more planned for the future.

To anyone reading this who is creating their body of work in any discipline, you have my respect and admiration.

And if you haven’t started yours yet and want to, today is a good day to start!

Reference points

It’s good to have reference points when you’re creating something beyond your specialisms.

I’m not a pianist or string player but I’ve been composing for both instruments over the last few months. I use my knowledge and expand upon it to get fundamentals right, namely instrument range, harmony, rhythms and idiomatic features.

When I want to take things further, that’s when I do my research.

An abundance scores from previous show the possibilities of extended techniques, engraving and ways to approach writing that you may not have previously considered.

Being creative involves listening and referring to other past works that can inspire you and influence you towards new directions.

Presets

I like presets. I tend to use them as a reference point for the kind of things I’m looking for.

The new record I’m making includes new timbres I’ve never worked with before but I’ve spent hours sourcing sounds from plug ins trying to find the right one for the particular passage or song. If I tried building every sound from scratch, I’d release my next record in a decade’s time!

With the amazing technology out there, it’s easy to get a sound you’re after, even close to artists you love. I’m always jumping for joy when I make a synth sound like Boards of Canada.

However, it’s worth reminding myself I’m not them and whilst influences are fine, it’s good to dig deeper, customise, explore and ultimately, find that which can make you unique.

It’s why as a guitarist, I’m ambivalent about digital amp profilers, I know they sound amazing, but I like the unpredictability of microphones and valve amps.

Presets are a good reference point for that which you are after. But good becomes greater when you can tweak, customise and innovate.

A change in environment and process.

I got up this morning and cycled into town after booking a room in my college.

I’m currently working on my new album and the process has been quite different to my previous works, particularly with lyric writing.

It occurred to me that most of the lyrics I wrote for my first solo album were written when I was travelling or when I was in a cafe.

Being robbed of the opportunity to experience both of late, writing lyrics has actually been a struggle and a slog.

But then, I changed my working space and environment. I also had the mic ready to lay down ideas there in the moment as opposed to writing it down and it worked a treat. As of today, I finally have a full set of lyrics for one of my new songs.

A new environment, a new approach are sometimes all that are needed for you to crack that thing you’ve been inhibited from creating.

Crossing the finish line of ‘good enough’.

I don’t own decent cameras and Final Cut Pro.

So when it came to me and the boys from Kinky Wizzards deciding to do a virtual cover together, we had to film ourselves on our phones and make do with the audio and video.

Jiff then worked his socks off on IMovie to sync it all together. After hours of working with the software limitations and tearing his hair out, he’s got it ready to ship tomorrow. (Watch this space).

It’s not ideal to not have the resources but doing it is a lot better than not doing anything at all.

Just because we don’t have the fancy gear does not mean we can’t not make something happen.

Collaboration

A few weeks, ago, I hit a brick wall.

I’ve spent lockdown relentlessly creating and whilst I’m proud of that, I’m also susceptible to getting into mental knots, especially when so much of the work I am doing is in solitude.

Cue a rest day, recharging my batteries and a walk for clarity. All of which helped, but when it came to moving my project forward, the key to unlocking it was two phone calls with my collaborators.

They were able to see things I could not, they brought a new level of energy, excitement and feedback that made me realise the further potential of the work I am doing.

Everyone who has ever made something, especially if it’s successful has had an environment and community around them to levitate their work, which is why the idea of lone genius is a myth.

Creative work happens when we do the work, but it also happens when we know to ask for help and welcome on board the expertise and insight of others.

Frustration can be a good thing.

If you are working towards a goal and trying to achieve something, feeling frustration is a natural part of the process.

The frustration of not being able to succeed in what you are doing (yet).

If you are frustrated, you are working towards flow and conscious of the fact that you are making mistakes and not quite where you want to be (yet). It can be a useful motivator, a challenge to overcome and it is very often that moments of frustration also can lead to moments of a high level of learning.

If we can perceive the process of frustration as a good thing and use ‘yet’ as a useful lever to move ourselves forward, we will reap the rewards.

Keep going.

New creative paths.

I’ve made 5 studio albums and I’m proud to say that each one of them is unique and different.

There are processes I repeat on a routine basis but there are other things I’ve moved away from, be it because my tastes have changed or what I did before was naive.

I’m working on my 6th album and I’m adopting new things I’ve never done before and it’s exciting. One thing I’m working with a lot more is synthesis and it’s uncomfortable because I’m working in an area where I’m not entirely sure what the creative outcome is. But that is part of the fun.

With each new project is an opportunity to try something different, follow a new path and evolve.

The Ravel Affair

I am currently attempting to write my first string quartet. It is a significantly new creative path for me and very challenging but nevertheless rewarding.

Upon my research of different quartets, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major is one of my favourites. I consider it to be a beautiful piece with extraordinary passages and details typical of Ravel’s musical personality that would continue to evolve later on in his career.

What I find remarkable about the story of this piece is that it was his final submission to the conservatoire de Paris and Prix de Rome competitions to which both rejected the piece. Aside from having mixed reviews from the Parisian press, his teacher, Gabriel Faure, to whom the piece is dedicated to, dismissed the last movement as ‘stunted and in fact a failure’. Ravel himself believed that the quartet was an inadequate realisation.

Thankfully Debussy, whose own string quartet piece, which was written ten years previously and most likely had some influence on Ravel, wrote to him a letter with some words of encouragement and insisted he did not touch a single note of the piece he had written.

From what I’ve read, the truth appears that Ravel was an unconventional character with unconventional approaches to musical composition that was difficult for the conservatoire’s ultra conservative director to accept. He had enough resilience, or indifference to any other criticism than his own to keep going on his own path and it just so happens that the frustrations and failure he dealt with led him to propelling forward in his career and eventually being revered as one of the greatest French composers of all time.

Sometimes, art and the work created just so happens to be received in a time where the culture is not ready to accept its value. Some works find that appreciation is manifested at a later date, in some cases even beyond the life of the artist. Ravel’s String Quartet is now one of the most played chamber pieces.

The reason I like stories like this is that it reaffirms that steering your own creative path and focusing on what it is you want to achieve is better than changing what you do and who you are merely to fit in.

More often than not, innovation comes from the outside.

Thrashing through bad ideas

One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.

There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.

Some students are so fearful of this, that it requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.

Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.

Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.