The Spigot and the Chute

I have a lot of feelings. I know, I know, this is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. But still, it’s true: Going thru life, I have lots and lots of feelings about the things I experience.

I also write music. And unlike some composers, I explicitly want my music to be emotional, to express feelings and to get people in the audience to feel things in turn.

Are these things related? Do the feelings I have in my day-to-day life translate directly into the art I make?

Well, yes and no.

The feelings I have in daily life? Those go into the Feelings Chute. The Feelings Chute is ravenous and indiscriminate in what it accepts — I can shove everything into it and it will happily nosh away, from toxic stress to mild boredom to euphoric joy. The Feelings Chute doesn’t care, it just wants to be constantly brimming over with specific emotions to process. It’s not chomping down on “the general sense of what irritation feels like”, it’s biting into “the irritation I felt at 7:04PM on 2 November, 2015 when my Wi-Fi was mysteriously broken for fifteen minutes”. I may not always be able to pinpoint the source of an emotion that precisely, but even if it’s a sourceless miasma, it’s still always tied to the specifics of the situation — “the sourceless miasma I’m feeling right here and now in this time and in this place”, not “sometimes I feel unsettled”.

The Feelings Chute then passes thru an impenetrable wall and enters the subconscious. I don’t know what happens back there. Complicated stuff, probably. I just know that there’s some kind of elaborate distillery, and one of its many myriad pipes leads back out to my side of the impenetrable wall and results in the Inspiration Spigot.

As its name suggests, the Inspiration Spigot dispenses highly abstracted emotions-as-music. It gives me, in dribs and drabs, the basic emotional and musical materials I need to form the core of  a new piece. On rare occasions, I can, because I’ve lived all this after all, make a pretty solid determination of which specific things from the Feelings Chute resulted in this particular draught (and here you should imagine me as the Most Pretentious of sommeliers, swirling a dainty portion of the day’s offerings and carefully inhaling the bouquet to announce that yes, this batch of satisfaction is particularly redolent of the opening night of my senior project, an excellent vintage, that!), but more frequently it’s been thoroly anonymized: Here’s some silliness! Some bemusement! Some scathing pugnacity! Likewise, I can sometimes give it a solid thwack with a specific prompt and say “No! Today I am writing a character going thru a breakup, I need sad music!”, but more usually, especially for abstract instrumental pieces, I just kind of let it flow.

But then the actual composing part takes over an things get tricky. Because the dribbles from the Inspiration Spigot? They go an awfully long way. To take a recent example: The first movement of Rotational Games was primarily motivated by a feeling of dislocation, of being out of place. Given that I had been living in LA less than a year when I started it, it’s not hard to guess where much of that feeling was coming from, tho July of 2014 is not the one and only time I’ve felt like something of a stranger in my life. That little feeling droplet developed pretty quickly into “OK, what if we start the bassoon and the piano in the same key and then have them drift away from one another, so that by the end of the movement, they’re in different keys?” and that, plus a little “Inspiration Spigot! I need a theme that says ‘warm and safe at home’, go!” were the only things I got from the Inspiration Spigot for that movement. The rest was a matter of much more prosaic compositional working out.

This working out is the meat and potatoes of composition. It involves taking the material you have and poking it in as many ways as you know how, turning it over and over to see what falls out. What are the motives that build up this melody? What happens if I start it in the middle, or turn it upside-down, or run part of it backwards? Can I squash phrases into interesting chords or, alternately, expand some of the chords I’m using into useful melodic gestures? Do I really need that F#? So much of my compositional work involves playing with initial ideas (and it really is playing — when I’m into it, composing is a tremendous amount of fun, even when the piece I’m writing is gaunt and haggard), finding gems of musical interest, and figuring out how to incorporate those into a compelling whole.

And this is where the relationship between life and art becomes perilously fraught. Because absolutely none of those processes apply to my daily life. “Sequences of musical events that build a compelling musical whole” are seldom remotely similar to “my actual life as it actually played out in real time”. To circle back to the example from Rotational Games: Taken as biography, that movement is wrong. I didn’t start out calm and secure and end up aimless and disoriented — if anything just the opposite! I have only felt more and more settled here as time has gone by, and even in my earliest, most fish-out-of-water days, I was never as bleak as that movement’s coda; there was always an undercurrent of excitement at the “shiny new adventure”ness of it all. Art doesn’t map onto life.

But life does kinda map on to art.* Here’s the thing about the Spigot and the Chute: They create a marked, but firmly one-directional relationship between what I feel and what I write. Because what I live absolutely informs what I write; if I felt like it, I could point to countless instances where a moment that grew into a piece was directly inspired by a specific event in my life. The problem comes when you try to work backwards after that growing-into-a-piece has taken place. Even the moments that are most concretely tied to specific events are embedded in musical structures that have nothing to do with the events in question. Sure, maybe this coda seems odd or striking because I was working thru some specific emotional gunk as I was plotting out this piece; that doesn’t mean the preceding 200-odd measures have anything to do with it. Biography can illuminate art, but art can’t illuminate biography. (At least my art. See the footnote from earlier in this paragraph for a necessary disclaimer.)

Things only get worse when you take into account the temporal distance between shoving something into the Feelings Chute and having its distilled core come out the Inspiration Spigot. Sure, sometimes it’s a relatively quick process, but sometimes it can take years before the appropriate moment arrives. It’s not like you can track my emotions by looking at the measures I penned on any given day.

So no, analyzing my latest sonata can’t really tell you the next chapter in my biography, but knowing exactly what I’m going thru might give you some insights into why and how I write some future piece months or years down the line. I don’t try to make my music hew to the outlines of my life, I just have a lot of feelings.

*At least for me. This is obviously a deeply personal and idiosyncratic thing, and other composers undoubtedly feel very differently about this question as it applies to their own work.