I am endlessly fascinated by creative processes. Every year, I teach a module called Creative Practice, where the underlying subject is process, and the aim is to nourish and inspire the creative processes of our first year students while teaching them how to recognise technique.
One of the essential skills is reflection - an ability to recognise what is happening in our creative process, and to take advantage of it.
If you are creative (who isn't?), then you may be interested in how the below demonstrates the kind of reflective process I mean.
I know by now that my engagement with making music is driven by a need to improvise. It's a way of escaping the logic and structure demanded by narrative and the world of language, in which I spend so much time.
I'm only interested in structure so much as it arises from improvisation, which is a response to the emotional moment. I don't make any 'loops' when I'm recording in my back room, play to click tracks, and only rarely begin with the rhthym or bass sections. I improvise through the melody, on keyboard and guitar, and once I've recorded an improvised melody, I improvise the parts that seem to speak to it. It's like having a conversation with a part of yourself that you didn't know was there.
Even with drum machines and the rhythm section, I improvise, and while this probably makes these little tunes maddeningly amateur in production, I'd rather have the conversational process and hear something that feels like it breathes together.
In the video attached here, there are three separate, but linked pieces that grew out of this basic process and which were created in sequence at the same time.
The first piece started as a picking rhythm on the guitar. We had recently been to the Scottish highlands, and I was thinking about a moment when we crested a summit in the car, and I played Mark Knopfler's soundtrack to Local Hero on the car Radio - (an in-joke about being in Scotland, and one of my favourite films).
This made me seek out a clear, resonant lead melody to capture something of Local Hero's vibe. As I was playing this, lyrics about our experience in The Highlands came to mind, and a feeling about the majesty, but also the lonely ennui of the place. I've been down in the dumps creatively, and I think it made me lean into the beauty in sadness, rather than the beauty in joy.
I can't really sing, so never added the vocals, but the lyrics can be sung to the guitar lead:
From Ullapool The one track road The sky and sea
Found in me And lost in you
Walk me on the ribcage of the sands Cold feet, and warmer hands Around the bay Off the map
Where land no longer has a hold The sea spills birds into the fold Of the map
Off the map Off the map.
As soon as I finished putting down the lead guitar part for this track, something happened right at the end of sustaining the last note. In fact, something nearly always happens as one improvisation fades away, and this is probably the most interesting thing that I noticed about the creative process here:
In the stillness left behind by one melody, another nearly always arises. I immediately began to hammer a new rhythm on the G, and as I did, I heard a beat and a new melody in my head. I went
straight through and played them. When they came to an end, I paid attention to the silence again, and moved straight to the piano to play what I could hear in that silence. This produced the third track.
In the dying silence of a creative act, a new one is born.
I suspect this particular bit of creative process has something to do with being brought up and nurtured on the album form. The 1980's were still a time when we listened to sequences of songs over a period of 45 minutes or an hour.
The art of the album was to sequence an emotional journey over this period of time through subsequent songs and music. In particular, I loved albums where the artist seemed to have paid particular attention to the possibilities of the form - albums full of surprising and artful transitions like those made by Prince, Thomas Dolby, and Peter Gabriel. (Everything since The White Album!) Very often, I liked the awkward, critically divisive concept albums over those filled with hit singles (compare Terence Trent D'arby's Introducing The Hardline, to Neither Fish nor Flesh). I liked the latter, which had no hit singles and loads of odd, inventive transitions and instrumental interludes between songs.
Anyway, I decided it would be appropriate to call this little triplet of melodies Transitions. As ever, I can't really mix and master well, and I don't have the time to make things perfect. But if you listen to them in one go and think about how each gave birth to the other, I think there's an interesting six minutes in it.