Tuesday, October 13, 2015


I was talking to a friend yesterday and I mentioned a new piece I am writing for voice and piano and she said something about inspiration, that I was "inspired". I thought for a moment and replied "I don't really know what 'inspiration' is." I didn't mean that I had never heard the word before and didn't know the dictionary definition:
1. an inspiring or animating action or influence:
I cannot write poetry without inspiration.
2. something inspired, as an idea.
3. a result of inspired activity.
4. a thing or person that inspires.
Now isn't that the saddest attempt at a definition you have ever seen! Aren't you NOT supposed to use the word itself to define the word? Ok, let's look at the verb form:
verb (used with object), inspired, inspiring.
1. to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence:
His courage inspired his followers.
2. to produce or arouse (a feeling, thought, etc.):
to inspire confidence in others.
3. to fill or affect with a specified feeling, thought, etc.:
to inspire a person with distrust.
4. to influence or impel:
Competition inspired her to greater efforts.
5. to animate, as an influence, feeling, thought, or the like, does:
They were inspired by a belief in a better future.
6. to communicate or suggest by a divine or supernatural influence:
writings inspired by God.
7. to guide or control by divine influence.
Well, that was a lot of help! You see why I say that I don't really know what the word means. Apparently no-one does! I think that what my friend meant was that I was in a phase where musical ideas were coming or occurring to me. Ok, sure. But what does that mean?

What I said to her was that the idea of "inspiration" is a general and abstract one and I don't really know what it refers to. What I have are not general or abstract things come to me, but particular and specific ones: a harmony, a rhythm, a melodic idea. And there are always ideas floating around, but that isn't so terribly important most of the time. What is important is knowing what to do with an idea, how to develop it, how it might fit in, where it can lead. Are those inspirations? I guess I think so.

There is a Monty Python skit, as I recall, where Beethoven is shown in his home and the Ta Ta Ta Dum motif from his Symphony No. 5 occurs to him. Wait, let me see if I can find it. Ah:

And you wonder why composers choose to work in tiny little shacks by a lake:

Where Mahler composed his Symphony No. 9
So it's not "inspiration" that is important as plan and design. Inspirations, defined as those little ideas that seem to come to you from out of the blue, are like bricks. What is really important is what you build with them:

And for that you need a lot of quiet time by yourself. Hey, I think I just figured out why music composition is in decline these days: iPhones, instant messaging, emails, texting, television, the Internet and all those other things that chop up our days into little segments during which we are vainly trying to remember what we were doing before we were interrupted...


David said...

Bryan, you might agree with this definition of "inspiration" from the Concise Oxford Dictionary:
n. 1a. a supposed force or influence on poets, artists, musicians, etc. stimulating creativity, ideas, etc. . . . 2. a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea.

It was the use of "supposed" in the definition that I thought might fit with your thinking.

I, for one, am happy that you take the time to be distracted by the interesting, balanced and thoughtful interruption that is this blog.

Bryan Townsend said...

Trust Oxford to get it right.

Thanks, David!

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes, and thanks for the hilarious Beethoven video. It's maybe not such an exaggeration!

Bryan Townsend said...

Wagner once rented a place across from an ironmonger and complained bitterly that he couldn't work with the noise. With me it's dogs!

Marc Puckett said...

In the 70s I never quite 'got' Monty Python-- interminable half hours of nonsense-- but, these days, it seems there is an amusing sketch appropriate for every occasion.

Saw a pack of feral dogs in Oaxaca once. Yikes.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nonsense, yes. But funny nonsense! And making more sense all the time.