Book Review: Perspectives on Writing Inspired Music by Robert Bruce

In Between the Lines, Book Two: Perspectives on Writing Inspired Music
by Robert Bruce, self-published summer 2012

Listening to any one minute of Robert Bruce’s music makes clear his total commitment to the creative act as a spiritual quest for beauty, joy, and eternal truth. I see this is self-evidently inspiring and admirable, but this attitude is totally opposed to today’s musical mainstreams – especially, many of those who purport to teach aspiring composers.

Indeed, he is probably a pariah to the “classical” or “serious” music world, which nearly a century ago (under the poisonous influence of a handful of intellectuals) overthrew beauty, joy and eternal truth as the highest goals in music, and replaced them with … shock value. The resultant pollution is everywhere, whether you’re sourcing MTV or composers in residence.

In this book, along with his artistic credo, Robert sets out the creative approach that has worked for him, explaining how and why this approach will nurture any aspiring composer.

I think this book’s importance is such that anyone who aspires to write (or teach) music should read it.

Why?

Robert holds that no one can really “teach” composition. Too often, the teacher tries to impose upon the student their own narrow view of what constitutes music and composition. “This is what you must learn, and this is how you must compose.” The teacher has accepted, as dogma, some regime that worked for someone else in the past – often centuries past – and the student is expected to blindly follow that.

But it simply doesn’t work that way. Creativity, by definition, is not conformist. It is a uniquely personal, unavoidably individual process. No one else’s methods or approaches can work for me – except my own, which I must discover. Trying to impose some other process upon a creative aspirant is simply closed-minded, and can have only one result: frustration. The aspirant all too often will simply give up, accepting that they don’t have what it takes to write music.

As proof of this, Robert describes a heartbreaking visit which he paid to a fourth-year university pedagogy class – about twenty young women who were planning on becoming piano teachers:

As I presented some of my own music and talked about how I went about finding and developing ideas, the young ladies started making frequent comments like “I used to do that”, “I used to love doing that”, and so on. I was mainly talking about my joy and approach in finding and working with the musical ideas that would come to me just by being open to them. When I asked them to explain to me what they meant they invariably said that their parents and/or earlier teachers had had often said to them to not waste their practicing time by messing around with such “nonsense”, to get serious about playing “real” music, to not play childish games, etc., and – most tragic of all – to not foolishly venture into the realm of writing music or composing at such a young age. Eventually, they all seemingly more or less gave up these experimental and creative practices after having had their balloons burst so many times by the adults around them. [emphasis mine]

If the tragedy of this outcome is not plain to you, if it doesn’t move you to anger (or at least pity), then I can only hope that you’re not involved with teaching anything to anyone. Creative processes are a birthright for us all, which parents and teachers are supposed to nurture and encourage – not suppress.

Robert’s approach is a liberating rejection of dogmatic practices and a return to the path of true creativity. It is like throwing off handcuffs, rolling up the blinds and opening all the windows to a sunny spring breeze.

Robert’s compositional “method” is also mentioned above: just playing with the notes, allowing ideas and phrases to emerge in their own time, not trying to force anything to happen. It is supposed to be play, not work; fun, not labor. Robert views the creative act as a gift of grace, a visit from the spiritual realm. Our part as creatives is to open ourselves to that visit, gratefully receive and document it when it arrives, and not try to make it happen. Hence the essential individuality of the act – it depends on the openness of the receiver. It is only when we work in this way that we will be given true music, that which embodies the beauty, joy and truth which we crave.

Those who are taking the first tentative steps towards finding their individual creative voices need to understand this, more than anything else they may learn along the way. So I think the greatest favor you can do for an aspiring composer or musician is to give them a copy of Robert’s book. Anyone can find it liberating and inspiring – as I have.

Notwithstanding a century of shock value and the current unimaginable degradation of most music (whether “serious” or popular), the source and aims of true Music have not changed, and never will. Let us, as composers, proclaim them openly and lay the foundation for a new musical Renaissance. I think it has never been more urgently needed.

In summary: 10 out of 10. Required reading for all music teachers and students.

Available from Robert Bruce Music, along with In Between the Lines, Book One: an Essay on the Therapeutic Value of Music, Musical Aesthetics and the Spiritual Origins of Music.

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