I've been working on an unaccompanied tenor saxophone composition for an upcoming performance. There are literally no constraints, except that it must be for solo tenor and it must clock in around 7 minutes. Given the considerable freedom that comes with a project like this, I had several ideas, none of which panned out.
I had been thinking about writing two different pieces for a long time, both of which I have toyed around with, but I never got beyond the basic concept. Over time, these ideas hardened in my mind, to the point that I couldn't do anything with them. Each of them turned out to be dead ends.
To clear my head (and ears), I tried improvising on completely different material during my writing/practicing sessions. At one point, I reversed my hands on the saxophone and tried to play with my hands in the wrong places. When I found an interesting sound, I wrote down the fingering, and learned to play it with my hands in the correct place. With a few new-to-me fingering combinations, and a new set of sounds, an idea quickly started to form into its own piece.
Fearful of locking myself into yet another dead end, I put the horn down and went to work on something else (non-musical). I read a book, took a warm shower, met with a former student, cooked dinner . . . anything to keep the idea out of my head. Later in the evening, I went back to work, reviewing what I had played that morning and making some notes - no more than 20 minutes. It struck me that the piece sounds like a swarm of bees, which gave me a story to go with the music. My brain surged with insight!
This morning, I made a leisurely breakfast, listened to the radio, and fueled up with a strong cup of coffee. In a few hours of work, the piece poured out of my head in a swarm of creativity. Armed with a still-malleable idea, an interesting story, and a little caffeine, the entire piece came to be in just a few days. All that is left is to write it all down (the least fun part of the process for me, given all the non-traditional notation required for the multiphonics and strange fingerings).
The piece depicts someone shaking a bee hive, and you might guess what happens next. From a personal standpoint, it is interesting that the creativity poured out much like the bees, disturbed from their hive. The lesson here is that there is a danger in ruminating too long on a single idea. We can become too attached, and ultimately unable to complete the project. We need to work while the clay is still wet!
I'll premiere Shake the Hive at the World Saxophone Congress in Scotland this July. Now, to write the darned thing down.