Sunday, 8 September 2013

"Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind." (Johannes Brahms)

Many years ago, I was told, by an influential person in the Welsh musical world, that my music would never get anywhere as it was "too thought out" and didn't display the "white-hot heat of creativity." This was, so they said, because I produced neat scores and extensively planned my work during the pre-composition stage. Apparently, the person concerned believed that scores that were hastily written out, with errors in musical grammar and with no apparent pre-conceived structure were the mark of an inspired composer rather than that of a slip-shod, poorly trained and disorganised one.

"Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man's faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements."


In contrast, a friend who headed up the human resources section for a major multinational company, told me that, regardless of how well qualified and intelligent, she would immediately rule out job applicants who submitted badly presented, untidy or incoherent curriculum vitae. Her reasoning was that, despite their qualifications and experience, the C.V. not only displayed an incapability and lack of desire to present themselves well but also an inability to organise their thoughts and, most importantly, a disrespect for those to whom they were submitting their application. 

At the time I thought she was being rather harsh but, as time has gone on, I think she was absolutely correct. I have always believed that craftsmanship in composition is important; if one take's pride in one's work then one presents it to the best standard possible. To me, the whole point of being a creative artist is that one's inspiration and ideas are turned, via the technique that has been honed over years of study and practice, into a coherent work that expresses one's own personality or, dare I say it, spirituality.

 "I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well."

J.S. Bach

In reality, everyone, bar the basest of beings, has inspiration and ideas; it is only the composer who can, or whom is driven to, translate these into cogent expressions of emotions or thoughts - music that doesn't do this is simply wallpaper.

"Technique is the test of sincerity. If a thing isn't worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value."

As well as taking pride in our craftsmanship it also serves a very practical purpose (in addition to presenting our work well and respecting those who will perform it) in that it is the foundation upon which we base our work. 

"It's like when you want to make a house... the technique is very important."

Cecilia Bartoli 

I once had a postgraduate composition student who wrote entirely from what one might refer to as "the white-heat of inspiration" and was seen, in some quarters, as very promising. She had no concept of technique whatsoever and, to make matters worse, relied upon the Sibelius programme to not only play back her music (she could not hear it in her head) but to tell her when instruments were out of range. She was unable to explain to me how she developed her ideas or structure, saying "it just comes to me". Then, one day, she became lost when half way through an extensive orchestral work and found it impossible to get started again as she couldn't work out how she had ended up where she was. As far as I'm aware, the piece was never completed.

"The more technique you have, the less you have to worry about it."

Pablo Picasso 

For those composers who rely entirely on inspiration and sometimes sneer at those of us who feel that the craft is as important if not more so, what will they do when faced with a deadline and have no inspiration?

"If technique is of no interest to a writer, I doubt that the writer is an artist."

Marianne Moore 

When inspiration has left the building what is the composer to do? Ask the orchestra to come back next week when, hopefully, it will have returned? Apologise to the audience, give their money back and explain that inspiration is ephemeral and without it one is unable to compose? Of course not, the experienced composer applies his technique, or craftsmanship if you will, to the material that he has and develops it until it can be moulded into a structured piece of music. Technique, while remaining in the background, underpins everything that we do and without it we are building houses of straw. 

"The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all."
Pablo Casals

It is said that Brahms would write several canonic exercises every morning before breakfast just to free up his mind and to prepare for the working day ahead. Britten, too, had his established routine for composition and stuck to it rigidly. My friend, Alun Hoddinott, was a stickler for technique and would meticulously lay out his work, being fastidious in his choice of ink pen and paper and spending a great deal of time in the pre-composition phase. The music only went down on the page when he had it all worked out in his head. 

"The old idea of a composer suddenly having a terrific idea and sitting up all night to write it is nonsense. Night time is for sleeping."

Benjamin Britten

Craftsmanship is all too often portrayed as an example of weakness, of a lack of originality, even as the refuge of the musical hack. In this musical world of the Emperor's New Clothes, where those who choose to dissent are castigated for not having the intellect to understand, there appears to be a theory that if music is liked and understood then it is somehow second-rate. There is an element of professional composer and sometimes critics, who intentionally cultivate the myth of the enigmatic composer, compelled to write by unknown forces and who has a direct line to some ethereal entity from whence flows their inspiration. 

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” 

Jack London

While some modern-day composers look with disdain upon tradition and established forms and genres they should consider that we can never re-invent the wheel, we can merely hope to add a few more spokes to it at best. 

I am not, of course, saying that there is no place for inspiration but that inspiration alone is meaningless unless one has the technique to express one's idea in a way that communicates with others and also has a respect for the performers - the music should, at all times, be presented in the easiest way for the performers to do their job. I always feel very grateful if someone wants to perform my music and to that end will try to produce clear, clean scores and parts that take into account the practicalities of performance. Furthermore, when I get it wrong, I am prepared to make alterations and adjustments.

"I never presumed that a technique of composition or an idea was so special that just using it would guarantee the quality of the music".

Robert Morris 

Personally, I am more than happy if I am seen as a craftsman working in a tradition that stretches back for centuries and would actually see it as a compliment. Dare anyone say that Capability Brown,  Benvenuto Cellini, Thomas Chippendale or Josiah Wedgewood were any less of an artist because they were consummate craftsmen? Do we write off the works of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Keats or Wordsworth because they either followed or expanded existing forms? If Michaelangelo, Epstein, Hepworth or Rodin hadn't learnt how to wield a hammer or to mould clay where would their inspiration have got them?

Inspiration by all means but sculpt it by using a well developed technique and give it the respect that it deserves.