Art in the Slow Lane
Earlier this year I completed a trio of piano pieces across the space of a few months. These pieces were significant in that they represented a long-overdue return to a full and healthy artistic freedom. Although for years I had been composing music for film projects I was hired for, I had found it difficult to create my own work simply for the love of it.
From my teens onwards I had been progressively crippled by self-doubt. I was suffering symptoms of extreme emotional suppression and had slowly become cold and unfeeling, deeply judgemental, and as a defense mechanism — egotistical. By my mid-twenties I had stopped creating music at all and was considering alternative, far dryer career paths.
In the few years that followed, I took occasional steps to rehabilitate my creativity, and thankfully in this time, I continued to be sought to compose for films. I found it easier to write for a brief or story, where a client was the ultimate arbiter of my work, but continued struggling to free my own artist.
A few years later, I simply came to conclude that despite all the ruminating and self-doubt, music is ultimately the itch I cannot scratch. It will never go away, and it is what I am most talented with and most valued for. I decided to do my best to honour its presence in my life.
And so began the slow and laborious process of rehabilitating the artist in me...
My first steps on this path continued to employ the dynamic of fulfilling goals. I set myself rules to fulfill, or particular techniques to explore. By setting such goals, I could bypass the vague, burdensome, and ever-shifting notion of whether it was ‘good enough’, and instead measure my success by the extent to which I had fulfilled the rules. Inevitably in this process, I created interesting work regardless of the goal.
For two or three years I worked on my own art in this way. It felt academic, which fulfilled an intellectual desire in me. In the background, it was also slowly freeing my artistic desire.
“There are no such things as creative blocks, we simply dismiss ideas too soon.”
Fast forward to those three piano pieces. By the time I started work on the first one, I appeared to have left behind many of those self-doubts that had plagued me for years. I came to believe there are no such things as creative blocks — we are rarely short of ideas, we simply dismiss them too soon. All ideas, if accepted and worked with, will naturally evolve into something more satisfying to us.
And so, one night in late 2020, I sat at the piano and, without any rules, goals, or expectations, I just ‘noodled’.
Perhaps that first session at the piano was only twenty minutes or so, but a melody and harmony came out, and I became curious. There was no weight attached to it, no vision of what it might become. I simply felt a curiosity around the ideas and recorded them to play back later.
Some days later I returned to the piano, picked up those fragments and continued...
As if gently encouraging a child…
I recognised the vulnerability of my recovering artistic spirit, so I remained mindful of how I was feeling the whole time. Creating in this way felt far more demanding than working to someone else’s brief. As if I was gently encouraging a child, I would observe when I became stressed and needed to stop, even if that was only after half an hour. But likewise, I would also learn to discern when that inner child was being too fickle and might benefit from just staying focused for a little longer.
After a few sessions, it was clear that I was developing something substantial, there was a flow emerging. That vulnerability was still there, but there was a sense that an inquiry was open and it needed to be followed. I was keen to follow my feelings and have them as my primary motivating force, without imposing structure or expectations.
One of the key tactics I learned during this time was to leave a loose end when finishing a session. Finishing with no loose ends might result in putting off resuming again, but I discovered that leaving an idea unfinished as I closed a writing session would leave me with an itch to return.
Early in the process, my self-doubt had all but disappeared. It was no longer about me. Instead, there was a sense of duty to my curiosity and to the art. It was often challenging, but I found myself in a state of humility, acknowledging that ideas were coming to me and it was my task to see them through.
All that mattered was that I was curious. I surrendered notions of what art I should be creating and simply allowed what was coming to me to manifest fully. It was often difficult, but the sense of duty, (the itch I can’t scratch), helped me to persevere. I let go of any idealistic expectations of the process and simply maintained faith that there was a finish line in the distance.
It took several weeks of working this way before the first piece was completed, and from the unused fragments that remained, I sensed the potential for two more pieces. A few months later, my three pieces were complete. For the first time in more than a decade, I felt I had created something purely for the love of it, and I had a new perspective on creating music, which I termed ‘Slow Composing’.
The Art Teaches Us
There are many characteristics to this process that nourish me in different ways from working to brief. Whilst working quickly to briefs and deadlines I was able to utilise the depths of myself I had already discovered, art in the slow lane helps me discover depths I was not aware of.
Creating art without a goal or deadline means sinking deeply into a sensitive, humble, and committed space. It means observing one’s emotional ebb and flow, sensitively creating the conditions for it to thrive. It means stepping back and allowing the art to be, at the pace it wants to emerge.
Allowing oneself to sink into this process brings a sense that rather than ‘I am creating this art’, in reality, the art is my teacher and I am here to listen to its desires. In those piano pieces it had been a sense of movement I stumbled upon; the rolling movement of church bells and the occurrence of similar movements elsewhere in nature, that continued teaching me how to write music beyond what I thought I was capable of.
Fully embracing artistic humility frees us from the concerns of ego, and though there are always opportunities for ego to creep back in, maintaining loyalty to our curiosity and being non-judgemental of what arises, repeatedly and joyfully frees us from ourselves.
“Your human personal intuition always whispers, it never shouts.”
Steven Spielberg has said that “Sometimes the dream almost whispers…, your human personal intuition always whispers, it never shouts.” It is not about deliberately and meticulously creating a vision, it is about creating the space and conditions in our lives for a vision, (any vision), to arise, letting go of what that will be and how it will happen.
In the months that followed completion, I continued to maintain this space of listening as I considered what these completed pieces now wanted. In honouring them I sought out avenues for them to be performed and recorded. Now, in the hands of performers, their journey continues.
The Next Dream Whispers…
My next dream arose quietly in this same way. It was a matter of one day catching myself thinking about the silent film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (Dir. Carl T. Dreyer, 1928), which I had seen only once several years ago with a live score by Irene Buckley. Some time later the thought returned and the idea of composing a new score for this film arose. All I did was not dismiss it, and the idea kept coming back to me.
As the idea continued gestating I sensed this would become my next slow composing project. I knew it would be longer-term, so the risks of not finishing were greater. Continuing to be sensitive that this fledgling idea was vulnerable, I gave it time and space to continue growing until my confidence was high enough that I started telling people about it, eventually creating my first blog post on the project to help keep accountability.
As I have sunk into the creative space of this new project, I have found that it is teaching me in ways I could not have anticipated. I have discovered I have a personal connection to the subject matter that I was not previously aware of and there is an element of emotional therapy happening in the process. I have also discovered further delights, such as writing analysis of the film, that I would not have otherwise foreseen. All simply by allowing it to be.
Let it Be…
“There are forces of nature gently moving us all the time, if only we will let them.”
Ultimately, I believe the dynamics I share here are the deeper reality to creation throughout all areas of our lives. It is less about planning or controlling, and more about letting go and trusting. Nowadays there is often a sense that by the time I consciously make a decision, that decision had in fact already been made some time ago.
Just as trees grow without a plan, responding to and harmonising with the world around them, so too there are forces of nature gently moving us at all times, if only we will let them.
As Alan Watts often posed, “Do you do it, or does it do you?” If there was an autopilot that would effortlessly create a life that you love, would you turn it on and surrender control?
When we let go and relax, we are naturally pulled towards what we are curious about. Given time, space, and kindness to ourselves, that curiosity becomes love, passion, talent, and skill. Though not without challenge, by allowing curiosity, creation naturally unfolds. All we have to do is let it be…
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. Please share, and subscribe for new musings on creativity, spirituality and updates on Derek’s new score to ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’. www.derekkirkup.co.uk.
This article contains affiliate links. Photos sourced from Pexels.com, (in order: Skitterphoto, Cottonbro, Aakash Sethi). Tree drawing from Pixabay. Still from ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is public domain.