“The muses will carry us along”: John Williams on composing music and the creative process
In a 2011 interview for The New York Times‘ ArtsBeat site, John Williams, the man who has provided the glorious musical soundtrack for an enormous portion of the world’s collective cinematic experience for the past four decades, talked about his creative process and the way he deals with incipient block by trusting his impulses and diving into the act of work itself. And he says it in words that directly invokes the idea of higher guidance from the muses. He also mentions the necessity of the artist’s “getting out the way.”
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever get blocked?
WILLIAMS: I never experienced anything like a block. For me if I’m ever blocked or I feel like I don’t quite know where to go at the next turn, the best thing for me is to keep writing, to write something. It could be absolute nonsense, but it will project me into the next phase of thinking. And I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry us along.
The wonderful thing about music is it never seems to be exhausted. Every little idea germinates another one. Things are constantly transforming themselves in musical terms. So that the few notes we have, 7, 8 or 12 notes, can be morphed into endless variations, and it’s never quite over, so I think the idea of a block is something we need to work through.
— James C. McKinley, Jr., “John Williams Lets His Muses Carry Him Along,” ArtsBeat, The New York Times, August 19, 2011
For more on the same theme, see my A Course in Demonic Creativity. Also note that the book contains another direct parallel with a point that Williams illustrates from his own experience. In Chapter Five, titled “The Practice of Inner Collaboration,” I talk about the necessity of divining your muse or daemon’s working preferences in very specific terms if you want to achieve a state of creative flow and inspiration, right down to the tiniest, nitpicking details of working methods and materials. Each of our creative selves or sensibilities seems to be imbued with an innate desire to work in certain ways, at a certain pace, with certain materials, and in a certain environment, as with the example of Rudyard Kipling and his famous statement about his creative daemon’s demand that he should write with “the blackest ink.” Williams, for his part, describes his necessary attachment to working with the “antique tools” of pen and paper in a world where the act of music composition has mostly moved on to digital tools:
INTERVIEWER:And you work with pen and paper?
WILLIAMS: Antique tools. Not even a pen these days. Pencil and paper. In the film work I look at the film a lot. There is a cutting room, a viewing room so to speak, within the building I work in, and I can look at a scene I am working on for two or three days and see it as often as I need to see it. I can write a few bars, then go look at it. People who have computers and work at synthesizers have that in front of them all the time. I don’t have a synthesizer or computer. I haven’t been educated in that technology. When I was studying and learning music, these things didn’t exist and I’ve actually been too busy in the intervening years to retool and learn it all. And I find that at least for me pencil and paper introduces a process of working that’s as much part of it, it becomes part of the conceptual routine or process of working. It’s tangible. It feels good to hold a pen or pencil in your hand and dirty up paper. I suppose it must seem to young composers a completely antediluvian or old-fashioned way of doing it.
Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But Williams is, as he is perfectly aware, wise for adhering to this practice, because he would be stepping right out of his own flow if he tried to “modernize” his methods. Kipling’s famous words about the proper way to behave whenever the creative flow is occurring can aptly be invoked here (as well as in any other situation involving creative work): “When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”
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