Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ravel on Inspiration vs. Work

Here is a can of worms I found while sorting through a massive stack of composition papers currently traveling in my backpack. Let's open it!
From a book called "A Ravel Reader" here is a letter he wrote to someone in response to their query about the nature of his musical inspiration.

"All that I am able to affirm is that in 1924, when I undertook the Sonata for violin and piano, which has just been completed, I had already determined its rather unusual form, the manner of writing for the instruments, and even the character of the themes for each of the three movements before "inspiration" had begun to prompt any one of these themes.
And I don't think I chose the easiest way."

In the footnotes to the quote, it adds "Ravel often quoted Baudelaire's aphorism: "Inspiration is decidedly the sister of daily work." In a rehearsal for the same Sonata, Ravel told the violinist, when asked about the role of inspiration in the work: "Inspiration - what do you mean? No - I don't see what you mean. The most difficult thing for a composer, you see, is choice - yes, choice."

So - is inspiration for musical works merely the by-product of hard work? Or are the composer's 'choices' the same thing as inspiration?

I often, if not every time, find myself with some form and layout of ideas, some 'character' of the piece determined even before I lay a single note to the page, or even have a single note in mind. It would seem that when composing this way a constant series of choices is made, with the aim of filling a particular mold of the composer's own design. At what point then is the composer inspired? I personally feel the most inspired at the start of the process, when making broad decisions about the work, and then once again when I have a draft of the piece written down, roughly corresponding to my initial conception, and I make more detailed choices that refine the work. It is often then that the I realize the true nature of the piece. Often I find the way things are working out at that point is beyond and better than my initial conception.

Is Ravel right? Is Wahlquist wrong? Is this too calculated a process for 'real' music to result? Can inspiration really be present when the composer doesn't even have any notes in mind?


Qait said...

(comment lost to the cruel unjustness of computer glitches).

we weep.

it was a good one.

Erica said...

Love this! Can I put a link to your blog on mine?

And addressing this issue of work/inspiration, I believe whole-heartedly in the reality of inspiration--of those moments that just hit magically (brilliantly!) when we least expect it. That said, a composer has to "pay his/her dues," invest his/her time beforehand, and work conscientiously to create an atmosphere where such inspiration can occur. And then, once it does, he/she must be able to make something of that inspirational flash. Doing so takes both craft and time.

(By the way, have you read Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise?" It's a fascinating overview of 20th-century music and the manner in which various composers have struggled with these concepts.)

R. Michael Wahlquist said...

Go ahead and link away! And no, I haven't read 'The Rest is Noise' yet. Not sure why not. I should be interested in somebody who stands up for modern music. Also, my latest post further addresses the concept of 'paying dues'. Thanks for your comment!