Creating In Spite Of Your Computer

As I previously covered in “What The Computer Has Done To This Generation Of Composers,” far too many of us have limited our compositional “reach” to that which we can coax a machine to play back for us, for a variety of reasons. Another dimension to the problem is the degree to which increasingly detail-oriented life and work environments in general may adversely affect us even beyond any technical limitations.

I can’t imagine my main man, Gustav Mahler, spending a good chunk of his day processing e-mail, learning new software (akin doing his own piano maintenance,) “Quickenizing” his finances, maintaining his website, contributing to a blog, or working his LinkedIn networks. The overbearing focus on detail required by these distractions might have contributed to a certain mental “eyestrain,” which surely would have diminished the depth of his score study and melodic generation/development which made him one of the preeminent conductors of his day and a composer for the ages.

Another dimension not yet discussed involves how computers can skew our balance between art and craft in what we produce. If art is what we create at the inner level (melodies, sound textures, formal architecture, etc.; anything intuitive,) craft is the skill with which we execute and polish its production on the outer level (notation, orchestration, sequencing, etc.) Using computer technology, the near-constant “here-and-now” focus needed for fine craftsmanship often saps the time and energy which used to be spent perfecting, or even finding, one’s deepest inspiration. How often do we get so wrapped up in finishing our sketch, sequence, orchestration, or mix that we don’t really perfect, assuming we still write any, our melodies? Compound this problem with the geometrically-increased level of detail which also dominates our external lives, and it’s a wonder we create any art, period. All craft and no art may make Jack a rich boy, but it rarely makes him immortal.

Or maybe our subconscious minds may still be doing the heavy lifting as always, but we just don’t reconnect with them because we’re too busy processing 28 forwarded nuggets of triviality which someone considered significant. In his day, Uncle Gustav had far fewer barriers separating his surfeit of emotional tragedies from the wondrous, still-vital music to which they contributed, since he didn’t have to be composer, publisher, accountant, promoter, and manager, on top of playing all the instruments of his orchestra. Now that such burdens are a given, who knows what the world is missing from us?

Briefly, then, how do we, in our commercial environments, achieve room for the cognitive “deep-breathing” necessary for the balance of art and craft? Simply put, discipline. There is nothing ignoble about paying your bills through your music; George Shearing, the phenomenal jazz pianist and tunesmith, often said, “Art for art’s sake and money for Chr—‘s sake.” But if you are going to create, however, you should make time to do so deeply, and regularly.

The specifics of good time management is a subject for another forum. In general, though, try to resist the computer-dangled temptation of trying to be all things to all people. Even assuming you don’t have the luxury of a staff, or even an available spouse, allowing lesser priorities to distract from your pursuit of excellence in your strengths can lead to mediocrity in everything. Try going on a “computer diet” for a few days by making a diary of all things which may erode your precious work hours. Look for what you can limit or eliminate entirely. Be ruthless; your inner voice will thank you. Sreamline your e-mail experience, both incoming and outgoing. Subscriptions to online anything must be chosen carefully, as they invariably trigger a flood of time-consuming crapola into your mailbox. Organize your software within an inch of its life; longterm, you’ll spend less time reinventing the wheel.

Force yourself to compartmentalize your available work time, religiously devoting most to being a musician and the remainder to being everything else but. Fight irregularity, as it doesn’t just apply to digestion. As a professional player, you wouldn’t only practice when the spirit moved you and then play for 8 straight hours. No one jogs 15 miles once a month. You have muscles and instincts that need regular maintenance and development, and so does your creative mind.

One not-so-minor advantage to this approach is the loss of fear of mental blocks, as most are simply manifested fear of failure, compounded by external pressures. Consistent, repetitive use of anything (especially something nebulous like your creativity) builds confidence. But the big reward of a regular imaginational skinny-dip in an undistracted oasis is the ever-increasing ease with which you will find and commune with your muse. Eventually, you will simply close your eyes and pull your hands off the keyboard, or listen to her while otherwise mentally occupied (my most effective is while driving.)

When traditionalists wax poetic about the pencil and paper “good old days” to those who never started a creative session without hitting an “on” switch, they aren’t just being curmudgeons. With apologies to the army, when you compose in a digital age, make sure you take the time to “be all that you can be.”


  • July 29, 2008 @ 7:04 am


    You seen to always have a way of articulating exactly what I ‘m struggling with. Thank you for the fresh perspective and for reaffirming that my efforts to create more structure are definitely moving in the right direction.

  • Keith Scripps
    July 29, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    A wise and inspiring essay. By responding, I am falling into the very trap that you warn against. However, your words resonated with me.

  • Chris Ash
    July 30, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    Ron, great column as always!

    If you’re looking for column-fodder and it is sufficiently interesting to you, then I’d love to know your views on studio layout (i.e. where do composers put their keyboard/piano/pen and paper worksurface/computer screen/laptop and how would it affect what they write and how they work).

  • Eric Nielsen
    July 31, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    More praise from the choir! I really enjoy your column in general. This one hit the nail on the head, so to speak, as I struggle with my time management as of late.

    Oh, and I hope you don’t have to close your eyes when you drive! ;-)

  • August 1, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    I was JUST thinking about this issue this morning. Ugh. And it’s only going to get worse. Thank you so much for raising the issue, and I would request more detail on how you combat the life-spam. :]

  • Tomasz
    August 14, 2008 @ 12:44 pm


    when are you coming out with a book that contains all of your great notes?!?! ?!?!
    We are waiting for the Composer Bible!!

    thanks again, for writing such great Articles!!


  • Amanuel
    August 15, 2008 @ 12:34 am

    Dear Mr.Hess,

    I must admit that I am, and have been getting education from your highly qualified and well elaborated articles. You have the natural spirit & pedagogy that some of us only grow from.
    where do we sing to get you started on writing a book that will contain all of this great knowledge?! I am very thankful to Film Music Mag, for having you be the Dr, but many of us will be more happy to have a book by you in our writing studios.

    My sincere respects to what you do Mr.Hess

    Servitore umilissimo

  • Amanuel
    August 15, 2008 @ 12:45 am

    NOTE ***** I meant (sing as the singing Choir of Eric Nielsen (up top) ****** but I guess Signing a petition for you to get your book going, is not a bad idea at all either !! I am sure every one on this community will agree with me.


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