Stream of Consciousness Composition and Sound Design

I wanted to write another "creating inspiration" post, and as usual I'm writing to myself just as much as to anyone else who visits the blog. Some may read this post and feel that its content is too obvious to mention. However, I think it's a helpful exercise to work through the differences between working with pre-existing inspiration and creating inspiration to serve the necessity of practicing/meeting a deadline. Let's get started!

Practice makes perfect: An overused saying that nevertheless rings absolutely true. The necessity of actually doing something is inescapable if one plans on getting better at their chosen craft. Or maybe there's a deadline which you must meet as a composer or sound designer on a project. What happens when your work depends on the existence of a concrete goal or other bit of inspiration that doesn't yet exist?

For instance, a composer might have a specific melody or harmony in mind which will serve as the impetus to move forward. If no such concrete idea exists then the composer must find another way to practice with an eye toward developing the ability to turn creativity on and off at will. So how might the composer get around this? She could focus on her craft on a level that is more technically focused and microscopic, perhaps by sitting down and writing a plagal cadence. Even this single cadence may suddenly evoke all sorts of options for working "backwards" and before she knows it she has an entire chord progression written. From the progression a particular melody might stand out, etc., and productivity is now in full swing.

Sound design, like music composition, has the same inherent limitation. For traditional composers, planning is less of an issue since there's a whole field of music theory out there to get you writing music using basic guidelines as described above. For sound designers and composers of "abstract" music, there's no real analog to music theory to get us flexing our creative muscles. The closest thing I can think of would be rescoring videos found on the internet, but what if there's no particular video that sparks inspiration? In my own experience, there are plenty of times where I hit a dead spot between sound design jobs or tutorial series and I have no specific obligations for a certain block of time and yet I should still be practicing. Just as with the example of the composer, I need some way to move forward without explicit inspiration to work from. I could picture a sound-emitting object in my mind in order to give me something to match sound to, but there's really no substitute for working to a picture with lots of visual detail. I'm stuck!

In this situation, I change my mode of thinking from working to something visual to creating a sound almost at random, letting the inspiration of the moment take me where it will. This "stream of consciousness" sound design involves taking various pieces and layers of sound that I find pleasing and matching them together in a way that sounds natural in an abstract sense (it's abstract because I have no explicit image to guide me). For instance, I might have a "stressed metal" timbre mixed with a "splintering wood" timbre. The two sound great together after a little massaging with EQ and other treatment, and now all of a sudden the sound evokes an image rather than the other way around. The image might be a collapsing house or perhaps some kind of fictional instrument that would only exist in a "Mad Max" style post-apocalyptic world. Whatever the image may be, I've now managed to inspire myself through practicing. At one point in "The Sound Effects Bible," Ric Viers writes about deriving inspiration through fitting random bits of unused sound together to create the audio for exquisitely detailed steam-punk devices out of thin air. This fun and productive exercise is a perfect example of letting sound guide you to a mental image which can in turn guide the creation of more sound.

The lesson here is that you can always create inspiration where none exists previously just bit sitting down and working. If nothing obvious strikes you during your allotted creative time, you have a great chance to discipline yourself into creating something anyway. This ability will pay off in dividends down the road, especially in a professional context where deadlines loom and the work must be done whether it's convenient or not! 

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2 Responses to “Stream of Consciousness Composition and Sound Design”

  1. Joe GilderDecember 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    Very cool, Nick. While I’m no sound designer, this certainly applies to recording and mixing music and songwriting. Thanks for the reminder that we should always be practicing our craft, whether we’re getting paid at the time or not.

  2. SeanDecember 19, 2009 at 5:52 am #

    Great article Nick. As a composer that suffers from sudden artistic blocks. I think composers (that also produce) can use a technique similar to your “creating a sound at random”, by sifting through instruments and finding something new. New sounds often inspire new songs for me.

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