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Friday, August 15, 2008

The elusiveness of inspiration

As a follow up to my last post I was thinking about all the music that has really inspired me in my life. I now think that musical enjoyment comes in 3 forms for me. These 3 categories overlap like Russian nesting dolls. I can be just entertained, entertained and inspired, or entertains, inspired and imitative. Let me run down my categories.

  1. Entertainment - As I've gotten older I think I find more and more examples of music I just like listening to. Doesn't matter what genre (metal, jazz, americana, whatever), I can just enjoy listening to a song because I like it and I think its well done.
  2. Inspiration - I hear something and it makes me feel like working on my own music. Gives me a little kick to keep going. It's motivational entertainment. I often get this from live shows as well as from listening to music at home.
  3. Imitation - I hear something and I want to actually write a song like that. A song that either sounds like that or a song that makes me feel the same way. Sometimes the end result doesn't really resemble my source of imitation at all but somehow, for me, the mood remains the same.
As I mentioned, my age has mellowed me a bit and I can just find enjoyment in a good song. When I was a teenager everything I listened to had to be just a certain style and it had fit the second two categories. Inversely, as I've gotten older I find it harder to find new music that inspires me. Maybe its that I'm exposed to far more music through the internet now and there's more to sort through to find what really speaks to me. Maybe the more of my own music I make the less of others music I get into. I have more than once read interviews with artists who, when asked what new music they listen to, say they don't really listen to anything new or list one or two bands. I often find myself going back to my older music for inspiration and it seems like in most cases what inspired me long ago still does. To use one band as an example, Dream Theater, I find Systematic Chaos fun to listen to but it doesn't get to me, doesn't get under my skin. I can still pop Images and Words in and I feel like a starry-eyed 16 year old again. I have reached the point where I don't expect to always be inspired and thats ok. Sometimes its just good to listen to good music. Getting inspired also means working and I can't work 24/7.

Even though great moments of finding something new are fewer, they are sometimes more satisfying and exciting. They seem to come in brief bursts. After college the first big 'new music' explosion happened in 2001. I was already a little familiar with Symphony X, but attending ProgPower USA 1 exposed me also to Pain of Salvation and Zero Hour for the first time. Here I found new music, stuff that sounded fresh and like it was forging a new path. I was also introduced to Spiral Architect and Vauxdvihl that same year. Back in 2001 pretty much everyone else I heard was trying to be a Dream Theater clone. 2001 was a great year for finding new music for me. Over the subsequent years I never had such a big explosion of discovery like that again but every once in a while something grabs me when I'm not looking and shows me a new perspective. I had those moments with Porcupine Tree - In Absentia, Sieges Even - The Art Of Navigating By The Stars, and most recently Everon - North.

I wonder if people who don't play music feel like this at all. Am I in a unique position as a listener and a composer, you do others find similar circumstances of inspiration and imitation, though maybe not for creating music, but for doing something else? All in all I still love listening to music. Almost as much as I love creating it.

I'll end with a quote by John Coltrane, one of my favorites about being a creator and consumer of music:
"Sometimes I wish I could walk up to my music for the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I’ll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and thats too bad."


stringray said...

Wow Sean,
lots of topics you bring up there.

About Everon: well, it makes me wonder that suddenly everybody starts loving their music (including myself, of course). The band exists since some years now, and nobody cared.
Seems that we, the listeners, are now ready for their music, we seemed to be unable to find the key to their compositions for some time.

The Dreamtheater dilemma is imvho a band problem. In all those years, their music was so complex for me that it took months to understand and like it. That is gone in the meantime. To say it in drastic words, they're worn out because they never take a break, except for a side projector another. And they care for commercial success. More fans more money. Music for a bigger mass, well we know where that leads to.
You're not alone. I don't care much for their latest recordings; I don't mind, there is so much more music to explore, my wallet can't afford it all anyway.

Music as entertainment; hmm, that's it's primary destination, I think.
I, as a composer, never tried to copy something I'm hearing. Things I like much live in me somwhere in a kind of a musical library, and when I sit there, writing from scratch, it just comes up and does with me what it wants. If you want, the influences are there, just in what I'm writing, and one can hear that, but I never try to do something I've already have heard, that wouldn't work.

BG said...

"I wonder if people who don't play music feel like this at all. Am I in a unique position...."

Well, Dream Theater has pretty much stopped getting me VERY excited. I buy all their new albums, but I don't listen to them so much. But one thing that is certain...I will always have moments when I need to "go back" and listen to "Awake" or "Images and Words".

About imitating, since I don't play...that doesn't apply to me directly, but in the context of listening I don't like bands that imitate others. Lets take a band like Pagans Mind. They play very well, but for me they seem to want to sound like DT. Sometimes I feel they get very close to actually rip off some passages of DT songs. That makes me want not to listen to them...even if they do a very good job otherwise. There is so much music yet to be experienced so I don't want to add "more of the same" to my ever expanding play list.

guitarsean said...

Hmm, maybe Imitation was the wrong word. I think Emulation is better. I don't ever want to "copy" someone else. But I do want to capture the same feelings. For example, when I wrote the music to the bridge section to the Strange Land song "Dear Helena" (first appearing at 2:36) I was thinking of the Pain Of Salvation song Inside Out (at 4:49) from One Hour By The Concrete Lake. Now, side by side they don't really sound that much alike but they did at the time I wrote that in my head. I think this is 'inspiration', just more direct, like a 1:1 ratio, rather than hearing something an letting my subconscious chew it over for a while before a new song pops out.

BG, I'm glad to hear that non-players listen to music much the same way I do. I think it makes sense. Maybe you need to have some of that 'player's ear' in you to enjoy more challenging music.

stringray said...

hmm, this is becoming quite interesting, sort of a great talk over a long period of time....

Bg, are you referring to Pagan's Mind's "The Prophecy Of Pleyades"?
I think what they did there was kind of a reference, a citation. I don't think they simply wanted to copy Dreamtheater just for making the exact same music. Their overall sound is quite different in style, except some solo parts, but those are, in the meantime, standard procedures of so called generic prog metal.

But there are some copy cats (I'm not sure if I want to use that term always in a negative context), like eg. K2 (Genesis) or Arkhe (DT).

Just think of what a musician is. He learns how to use his instrument; he listens to music and has some 'heroes'; finally finds his way to play the instrument - his style; the ones who are writing produce some new output of art.
BUT --- we're all normal humans. All Artists are.
Some just worship a god, others worship several gods, and some find a unique way of writing/playing.
Just like listeners are.
Remeber those guy who listen to Iron Maiden (just to name a band, no offense here) and simply nothing else, because all the rest is crap, as he says.
The other guy who says "Zakk Wylde, John Petrucci and Steve Morse are the only true guitar god"s will practice to reach skills of three guitarist, and therefore have more vary in style.

I think you as a listener - of the third category - knows what I mean.
We do know Seans and Strange Lands influences, but they do not want to sound like the band the influence came from. We hear what band is behind in many parts of their playing, but it never sounds alike.
On the other hand, my first category's guitarist, has his efforts really been that band?

Please forgive me as I leave all I've said without end for now, walk out of the room and enter it through another door:

Being on stage, a drummer that starts a tune at 48 bpm and ending it at 150, having two other members playing completely out of tune; after that, hearing all the people telling me how great it was, I get confused.
They all hear such things, I know them. But none of that says "besides a few here and some there it was ..."

Sometimes it is hard for me as a musician, seeing that critique doesn't come when it is due, and then, when you're off, it comes twice as hard.
So, when you listen to a cd of a copy cat, what would you tell them if they were around. And what would you say about it if they were gone?

Yes, the mass-production-copy-cat is one thing; a boring one. But there are others out there, don't you think?