Posts Tagged inspiration

Kawabata-san: a Fleeting Glimpse

As with all the arts – and sciences too – I think, one’s tastes and allegiances can – should – evolve over time. We may fanatically adhere to one musician, writer or artist above all in our youth then, in maturity, wonder what possessed us.

I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter some of the world’s greatest writers. Victor Hugo was the lion of my youth, and I still read him occasionally. I might have one more go at Les Miserables, which I’ve read six times. His lesser-known novels Toilers of the Sea and Ninety-Three are terrific page-turners with Hugo’s signature heart-stopping personal and moral dilemmas, and I really should pick up Notre-Dame de Paris once more.

Note that latter title: Wikipedia notwithstanding, it’s not The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; it never was. Quasimodo – as great and noble a character as he is – is not the title character of the novel; the cathedral is. Reading a good unabridged translation makes that clear enough.

Hugo’s irresistible romantic drive stoked my occasionally reckless and misspent youth (or what I like to imagine was), such as when I walked away from a final aimless year at university to undertake the rock musician vision quest. I still remember sitting in a large park in small-town Southern Ontario, being moved to tears by reading of Cosette’s thought, “Perhaps he is my mother, too, this man.”

Of all the writers I’ve encountered, however, the one who resonates with me the most now is Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate.

Kawabata-san famously said that, after Japan’s defeat in the war, he would only write elegies (although that was arguably no change from his prior work). All of his novels which I’ve had the fortune to read in translation certainly fit that category.


The journey began 24 years ago, when I read The Master of Go for the first time. The elegy ethos – and the tension between the classic and modern Japanese cultures – is perhaps at its sharpest in this story, which is built upon Kawabata’s reporting of a famous 1938 match between a legendary old master and the best of the younger, modern generation of players. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Kawabata cited The Master of Go as his favorite among his works (and the only one which he regarded as finished).

Kawabata’s three novels cited by the Nobel Prize Committee are Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital. As outstanding as they all are, the last is my clear favorite.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, from the late 8th century until 1869, a year after the Meiji Imperial Restoration, when Tokyo became the capital.

Kawabata’s exquisite descriptions of natural scenes, Kyoto’s numerous religious festivals, and the city itself are sufficient to recommend The Old Capital, but what makes this gem really glow is the masterful, understated portrayal of character and relationship. Little is said; much more is left unsaid. As a molecule is mostly empty space, Kawabata’s meaning is found mostly between the written lines. I don’t claim to understand very much of what he’s getting at, so far; as with any subtle art, understanding comes with practice.


Photo by Yousuf Karsh.

Kawabata-san’s influence must inevitably drift into the music, and so it has, from the beginning of the eyes cast down project. It’s most notable in the elegy pieces Like a Riven Cloud, At This Body’s Final Hour, Transitional and Mister God, This is Taylor, as well as an album in progress about which it’s too early to speak. As I wrote in the story of the Souls Adrift, in Disrepair album:

“For me it sums up the material world, with us struggling our way through it. Fish out of water. A suitable continuation of themes ruminated upon in the Separate Ones album…” In a sense, as far as this world is concerned, I can only write elegies, too, because this temporary, chaotic ball of matter, birth and death is not our home.


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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.


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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The Creative Impulse, and Why I Must Obey It

A friend in the Relaxed Machinery community, for his English class paper on “Underground Musicians”, drew up a set of questions and invited answers. They are excellent questions, cutting to some fundamental issues, so it was a pleasure to participate. My friend earned an “A” for his paper, and I wound up with an artistic manifesto.

1. Why do you create music/art?

I don’t have much choice. I have a creative urge and I’m more crazy about music than any other art form, so most of that energy just goes there.

Walkway at Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton ON

2. What moods, perspectives, and/or messages are you usually trying to convey when you create music/art?

There’s never a message. There’s always a feeling that I’m trying to capture. A piece can be inspired by a life event, or an idea, or some natural phenomenon, or another artist. It can start as simply a musical or technical idea, but it needs to tap into a feeling or idea that I’m interested in. I might be aware of that feeling or idea before I start, or it might emerge during (or after) the creative process.

Three very different examples: First Day Apart came from a feeling of being separated from my daughter when she left home for a year to visit friends half a world away. The title – like the awareness of the feeling – came only after the piece was finished. Knife of Karma started with the title, nothing but this cool-sounding phrase – and grew into a meditation on the march of time, the seduction of material nature and the iron law of karma (action and reaction). Rebuild From Memory started as an exercise in loops and editing, then revealed its structure as a rumination on how our imperfect memory tends to rewrite and re-interpret the past.

First Day Apart clip by eyes cast down

3. How do you see your music in comparison to the mainstream genre?

My music is completely outside the mainstream. The mainstream is about sex, money and fame. It’s not about music; it’s not about art. It’s about the business, and the results, of selling products.

There’s no interest in authentic self-expression or any forms outside of the well-worn commercially acceptable ones. Mainstream musicians are slaves to the market. It’s all about externals. The audience are just as enslaved. They’re spoon-fed, passively receiving what the machine dishes out. Their role is to obey and buy the product. It’s a puppet show. There’s no question of active engagement at a deep level with the art. It’s all on the surface.

My music – like any authentic artistic expression – is about an internal, deep, personal connection: both within myself when creating, and within the heart of the listener. Sincerity, respect and good faith are key for both creator and listener. You won’t find those in the mainstream.

4. What is more important to you when you create? a) Getting your own point across or b) Leaving room for interpretation?

I don’t really have a “point”. I start with an idea for a feeling that I’m trying to find in the sound, and I’m satisfied when (1) I think I’ve captured that, and (2) the music sounds complete in itself. That’s my experience of the process. But every listener’s experience will be uniquely their own; I don’t have any expectation for how they “should” hear the music. It’s their experience, not mine.

That’s a major difference in approach from the mainstream, which is all about triggering specific hormonal responses in order to sell product. That music is entirely in the mode of passion; it’s basically about appealing to people’s lust. Get dancing. Get partying. Get drinking. Get laid. Buy this product. It’s not about music, it’s about business. For the sincere artist with something personal to communicate, that world is hell.

Knife of Karma clip by eyes cast down

5. Who/what moves or inspires you?

Great art in many forms: music, literature, theater, photography, film, architecture and more. Forms of beauty in nature – both material and spiritual (but the latter is more important). Personal relationships.


6. Would you consider your work to be sincere? If so, why?

Definitely. Nothing that I record leaves the studio unless it’s fully sincere and as musically complete and good-sounding as I can make it. Why? I despise insincerity.

7. What defines as being “good music/art” to you?

Sincerity, depth, focus, competence, imagination, respect for the audience.

Nice flowers!8. Would you say that musicians/artists become or are good more due to gifts & talents or practice & dedication to hone their craft?

Both. You have to practice developing and using your gifts with some dedication, or nothing will happen. Everyone’s different. If I have any musical gift at all, it’s as a drummer. Everything else, I’ve had to work hard at. It comes more easily to some people. For example, Steve Roach has enormous natural gifts, but has also worked long hours with deep focus and total commitment for many years. Both elements need to be there, and it’s a different combination for each person.


9. What do you hope to achieve from what you create?

The satisfaction of creating something that pleases myself, and hopefully connects with other people as much as possible. That’s a way of finding kindred spirits, which is always nice.

10. What effects have you seen your work have on others?

The coolest, and most unexpected, was one friend telling me that she uses a couple of my pieces for meditation.

Tower at St. George the Martyr, Toronto ON

11. Where do you think you would be in life if music/art was non-existent? Why?

How could anyone live? I think that the phenomenon, and purpose, of art (and especially music), is so fundamental that there could be no life without it.

When I wanted to be a writer, one of my ideas for a novel was to write a character who didn’t like music at all. A Life Without Music. I never pursued it, but it would be a nightmarish life, if such a thing was possible.

Rebuild From Memory clip by eyes cast down

12. It has been said many times that musicians are the most creative when they are drug addicts, or as the old saying goes, “No junk, no soul.”. In your opinion, do you think that certain drugs aid in the creative process? If so, why?

I’ve never believed it, but even if it was true, I wouldn’t care. It’s not worth it. Addiction is hell. Any non-destructive way to access other states of consciousness is far better. Meditation does it for me.

13. It used to be every band’s dream to get signed onto a record label & now it seems as though bands prefer the freedom of working independently. Why do you think that is?

I think the pimp-prostitute nature of the record label-artist relationship has finally become obvious enough to enough people. Also, the internet has broken the record companies’ stranglehold on music publishing media, which has made it possible for artists to publish their work much more easily.

14. What impact has the record industry had on music throughout the years?

It has basically shaped the entire popular music industry into forms and styles which it considers the most commercially viable at the time, excluding all others. Again, its whole approach is not about the process of creating music; it’s about the end result – the product. It’s backwards: instead of an artist honestly pursuing a creative, personal process to its end and discovering something new in the result, the performer and the process are subverted to the end of generating a saleable product. There’s no personal connection.

15. Would you consider it to be a fair statement that mainstream music is made more for the sake of acquiring money than for the genuine desire to create, and that underground musicians are the opposite?

Generally, yes.

Sanctuary at St. George the Martyr, Toronto ON

16. The internet has, without question, changed how we look at music. It makes it much easier for underground musicians to spread the word about their work. On the other hand, it also makes it possible to download music for free from torrent websites. Overall, do you think that the internet has, and will, hinder or aid underground musicians?

It will certainly help them to find their audience more easily. But if they want to get paid for their work – as I do – it’s also a major problem. The internet has enabled thieves no less than creators. The largest part of the problem is the sense of entitlement that so many consumers have. They’re completely self-centered and don’t give any thought to the artist’s situation. An artist needs to make a living too. If enough people steal his work, he’ll have to get a job, which steals his creative time. Just because you can steal something without compensating its creator, doesn’t mean you should. If you think my music is worth listening to, pay me for it so I can make more. Friends don’t steal.

17. Where do you see the music industry going from here?

The mainstream is becoming more and more degraded every year. It’s basically performing animals now. The underground will continue to grow, and the evolution of gear and software (along with the internet) means that more people can publish their own music, so there will be much more of both great music and garbage. The illegal downloading is only going to increase, so musicians can pretty much forget about album sales, unless an unbreakable encryption solution can be found. We’ll have to find other ways to earn our living.

Downed tree at Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton ON

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