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Thoughts on Musical Inspiration

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

For the past six months, a dear elderly friend of mine has been asking, “Kirsten, when are you going to begin adding posts to your blog?” In my go-to procrastinating fashion, I have put it off and put it off, but luckily for my friend, today is the day that more of my thoughts are documented for all of the Internet to see, for better or worse.

**Ah, and a quick side note: I’m sad to report that my friend is suffering from a sudden illness, but bemused to point out that this turn of events jolted me into actually writing a long promised blog post. The painful realization of the shame of procrastination! What if my friend is suddenly whisked away before I could write the blog posts that she so much wanted to read? Anyways, do keep my friend in your prayers.

Today’s topic is going to be on the exciting subject of inspiration – specifically, what sort of things have inspired my music so far in 2020.

I’ve read many an article that says inspiration (or a feeling of motivation – I find that the two are often linked) is not paramount to the creative process. The important thing is that you “get ‘er done”, as my dad likes to say, whatever “it” may be. Although it goes against my artist’s complex, I will grudgingly admit that that sentiment has plenty of merit. If I stopped creating music every time I felt a lack of inspiration (an ambiguous feeling indeed), I probably wouldn’t be a composer and I definitely wouldn’t be a performer. My family is well aware of my chronic practicing procrastination. (Funny how we keep circling back to that pesky “p” word – I’m sensing a future blog post in there somewhere.) Even in composing, there are many times where I “don’t feel” like working on figuring out that rhythmic problem in Piece X, but it’s necessary to muscle through in those duller moments.

That being said, I still believe in the power of fresh inspiration. (Fresh inspiration… if that phrase was a scent, it would smell like tangy lemon trees and line-dried laundry and ocean breezes. What do you think?)

Inspiration is paramount to preventing musical stagnancy. I’ve been writing music for less than two years, but I can already look back and see a trail of growth behind me. Change is often portrayed as a melancholy necessity of life, but I think it would be more sad to never grow as an artist. In my opinion, a huge part of growth is credited to fresh sources of inspiration and influence.

For those of you who are familiar with the album I wrote in the summer of 2018, you can probably guess that I was largely inspired by nature. (I know what you’re going to ask – no, I did not swim with dolphins before writing Dolphin Games. I wish!) Because summer is fantastic, I spent a large amount of time outside after a semester of being cooped up in a classroom and in my car. Nature made me feel something, and I was moved to put those feelings down into music. Also, my emotional and spiritual health was at an all time high. It was a happy and simple summer, and I think my album Watercolor Sky reflects that peaceful simplicity, in the best way.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what direction I want my next piano album to go in. (Gasp – I just said it. Another piano album is maybe-hopefully-possibly on the way. I have no timeline and no definite plans, but the itch for expanding my piano works is growing… I haven’t written a new piece for piano since December of 2018! That’s a shame!) Anyway – direction for next piano album. I think it’s going to be a good bit different than Watercolor Sky, but in a good way. A lot of water has gone under the bridge in terms of experiences and musical inspiration since 2018, and I feel as though I have new ideas to share, and new ways to communicate them.

This year – 2020 – I have been most inspired by other musicians and their art. I want to emphasize that this is not me copying people. Sometimes it happens innocently, because all art references itself, but I am committed to the pursuit of originality. Imagine an acrylic painter watching a painting tutorial on YouTube. He notices and admires that unusual shade of lapis blue and that unusual blending technique. These discoveries fuel the acrylic painter to see what he can come up with using similar components and techniques. For me, it’s the same idea. However, instead of paints, I’m talking rhythms and harmonies and intervals. (Thankfully so – I’m not a good painter.)

I can boil down my recent musical inspiration to three interesting musical sources. Firstly, I’m four weeks into a Jewish Music History class at Keene State College (last semester – whoo!), and I already love the specific modes and rhythms from the Jewish culture. For example, a beloved mode in Jewish music is [Do-Ra-Mi-Fa-Sol-Le-Te-Do], and an interesting cadence progression is [Major IV to minor i]. (Maybe those things aren’t that revolutionary, but I hadn’t really mused upon them before.) Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if an obscure element from that class makes its way into one of my future compositions. It’s interesting how inspirational sources can lay stagnant within your system and pop up at the funniest moments.

Secondly, I recently discovered a twenty-something harmonist/songwriter by the name of Jacob Collier, and his compositional chops have my brain wheels turning big time “What chord IS that?” “How did he come up with that progression?” “That rhythmic modulation is so cool!” All the thoughts. I really appreciate musicians who can take elements from different genres and seamlessly weave them together into a new and unique style! I am in no way a MIDI/synthesizer/technology person, but his skills almost make me want to check it out. (Just kidding, I've already started and stopped enough musical hobbies.) I’m most likely sticking to my acoustic comfort zone, but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into that sphere of composition. (If you’re unfamiliar with Jacob Collier, I would recommend watching Musician Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty ft. Jacob Collier & Herbie Hancock I WIRED, or LOGIC SESSION BREAKDOWN: “All Night Long (feat. Take 6).) He's really quite smart. It took him six hours to compose an orchestral/vocal piece that won a Grammy Award this year. I digress!

At the moment, one of my big compositional focuses is expanding my harmonic palette. ”Is this really the best chord I can use in this situation? Does this express the character I’m going for? What if I’m missing something really important from my emotive toolbox?” I think a huge reason for this development is my newfound appreciate of jazz music. You’re going to laugh, but three years ago, I hated jazz. Two years ago, I would listen to jazz if it involved my friends performing at a workshop or something. Last year, I started to admit that jazz might be kind of interesting. This year, I can’t get enough. (Caveat to that – I’m mostly referring to vocal jazz, as my painfully short attention span has trouble with really long instrumental jazz recordings, but I’m getting there!) Anyway – jazz! The harmonies are so delicious! And the improvisational opportunities are so exciting!

It makes me laugh when I remember an old me who didn’t like writing music with any color notes or expressive dissonances. Because now I love them SO much. They’re really the salt and pepper of modern writing.

To wrap up my sharing of specific musical inspirations, I’ve been listening to more folk than ever. Oldies like Peter, Paul & Mary… Russian-American folk singer, Regina Spektor … bluegrass crossovers like the Wailin’ Jennys … even some Bossa Nova from the sixties. I’m not sure what it is that keeps drawing me back to this musical style. I like its laidback feel, the quirkiness and poignancy of the lyrics, its homey-ness, its authenticity. I think I admire this style because it’s so different from my own musical sphere, since of course, I’m a classical girl at the core.

Speaking of being a classical girl, this semester’s push towards the Senior Recital is definitely shaping the way I look at music at the moment. (*SHAMELESS PLUG* What are you doing on Saturday, April 4th at 3pm? Come to the Redfern Arts Center @ Keene State College to see yours truly!) 😉

Final words of encouragement for composers struggling with lack of inspiration… if you dig down deep, the inspiration is always somewhere to be found. It might be a a conversation you had with another musician. It might be a specific harmony that you loved when you were fifteen years old. It might be something in your music library right now.

Hopefully, it’s something right in front of you.

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