Where does music come from?

All songs are born to man out in the great wastes. Sometimes they come to us like weeping, deep from the pangs of the heart, sometimes like a playful laughter which springs from the joy that life and the wonderful expanses of the world around us provide. We do not know how songs arrive with our breath—in the form of words and music, and not as ordinary speech.

—Kilimê, East Greenland Eskimo, recorded by Knud Rasmussen; Pharmako/Dynamis, p. 239

Where does music come from?

The question is not Why do humans make music?, but more like How do humans make music? and more specifically How do humans make new music? Where does it come from?

I get asked this question all the time about my music. How do I come up with it all? Where does those melodies come from? How do I decide what goes where? And how does someone without a lick of academic musical training create things like William Blake’s Inn and the Cello Sonata and Six Preludes (no fugues) and Seven Dreams of Falling and my super secret new project?

Hell if I know, is the short answer.

I just spent three days in the mountains on retreat with my fellow Lichtenbergians, and all I produced was about a dozen ways not to sing the phrase “Rip me from this darkness.” If I knew where music comes from, I’d have a lot more to show for my effort.

Here’s what I know about where my music comes from. The Minotaur opens Dream Three of Seven Dreams with a four line lament on his unhappiness. (At least he does in the original script; I’ve requested that the dialogue be retained for the libretto.) At the end of the scene, as he and Theseus are making love, those four lines return (amplified) with a completely different emotional impulse, so to speak.

I’m therefore working backwards: I know the end of the scene is an ecstatic duet, and so I start working on making that happen. Later, I’ll take the melodies associated with those four lines and scale them back into a lament, changing the key and orchestration, perhaps even the rhythms, so that the notes that ring in our ears as ecstatic love start out as unhappy loneliness.

I also know that one effective way for music to depict ecstasy is to have the orchestra whaling away in chromatic arpeggiation while the singer soars above it with a strong, simple melodic line. (See: “Liebestod,” Tristan und Isolde, Wagner.) So far, I’ve approached it by trying to come up with the strong, simple melodic line and seeing where that takes me, but alas—that strategy has failed me.

I could keep working away trying to come up with that line, but I think what I’m going to try for a while is the other approach: work on the orchestral whaling and then construct the melody to soar above it. If the accompaniment gives me what I need, then no one will ever know that the melody was an afterthought. Well, you will, but you’ll keep your mouth shut in interviews, won’t you?

So the answer to the question “Where does your music come from?” appears to be “from a cold, calculating brain, not from a deep well of inspiration what are you crazy?”

I’ll keep you posted on the results.

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