Soul and Inspiration

Spring 2006


As composers and lyricists we are called upon to wear many different hats, two of which are the creator and the entrepreneur. Frankly, the latter has less appeal to me. In fact, I have found that by being more concerned with the creative process and the joy of what I do, the financial rewards have taken care of themselves. Not to be cavalier, I wouldn’t suggest that you can succeed in this business without a certain degree of financial savvy, and by all means we should be compensated properly for what we do, but focusing on the creative, rather than the monetary remunerations, at least for me, is a more rewarding way to go through life.

I believe that we owe it to our profession to not only be conscientious, but also to be as inspired, as we can be. It makes us feel better about ourselves as composers and lyricists and in the long run enhances the worth of our contributions as artists and adds to the prestige of our craft. So what does that mean? Where do we as creators find inspiration and what does that really have to do with writing words and music?

Certainly the first place to start is by absorbing as much as we can that has been brilliantly executed by those who we admire. Jan Kaczmarek, who I have had the good fortune to interview later in this issue of The Score, cited the work of Ennio Morricone as inspirational to him. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Morricone a few years ago and asked him what his biggest piece of advice would be to the beginning composer. He said, without hesitation, “study the masters, absorb the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.” I believe this is good advice to any composer, regardless of his or her stage of progress.

In leading a question and answer following the screening of The Family Stone, I spoke to Michael Giacchino about composers that he admired. Michael stated that he was always interested in hearing the music of our own past president, Bruce Broughton. I was fortunate to spend a few afternoons early in my career with Bruce, and we have since become close friends. I remember him recommending the dissection of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the piano music of Chopin. This was valuable advice and I believe that it is as sound today as it was then.

One of the most gifted composers that I know is Lee Holdridge. Not only has he contributed greatly to film music, but his concert work, in much the same way as Bruce Broughton’s, has added greatly to the repertoire. I remember sitting with Lee many years back. He was speaking enthusiastically about a technique that Peter Tchaikovsky employed in voicing an entire passage in octaves and unison. My great teacher, Albert Harris refered me to The Nutcracker Suite, also composed by Tchaikovsky. He was convinced that there was much to be gleaned from the study of the orchestration of these short gems. The third movement of another of his works, the Pathetique, although a childhood favorite of mine, remains to this day to be one of the true inspirational movements in symphonic music for me. One of the significant turning points in my career was composing a symphonic piece, Oklahoma Trilogy, which was a tribute to my boyhood home. Although there was no financial gain from its execution, it provided a showcase for a different side of my compositional output and it found itself in the right hands when the producers of Guns of Paradise were looking for composers.

Arthur Hamilton teaches a wonderful class on songwriting at UCLA. Besides being one of the great lyricists in his own right, I know that he still considers himself to be a student of song. He has introduced me to many finely crafted lyrics by Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. Marilyn Bergman lists Ira’s book, “Lyrics on Several Occasions,” as an on-going inspiration for Alan and her.

When I was composing the music to the series, 8 Simple Rules, in order to find myself in the right place for a contemporary approach, I spent a great deal of time listening to the songs of John Reznick from the Goo Goo Dolls and John Odraznik from Five for Fighting, both exceptional talents. In this same vein, the work that writers such as Rob Thomas and John Mayer are doing is inspirational in its own right. No doubt, the great pop writers who came before them have inspired them as well.

Let’s consider for a moment the non-musical inspirations that are equally rewarding. Whether it is great literature, time with friends and family or profound religious beliefs, we can find inspiration in a number of disciplines that can enrich our lives and imbue our creative output with the “soul” if you will.

I have always felt a strong connection between the fine arts and music. Some of the most thought provoking and creatively stimulating time that I spend is appreciating the work of the artists I admire. Not only does it inspire me to breathe new life into my compositions, but it also provides me great solace while navigating the uncertainties of our profession.

Trying to imagine the time and place of a classic work of art and the execution and technique involved with the choice of palette, location and mood is not unlike deciding the arc, orchestration, and style of a song or music composition. Seeing the evolution of the landscape art form, beginning in the 1600s with the Dutch master, Jacob Van Ruisdael outside the city of Haarlem, with their castle ruins and bleaching grounds, which laid the groundwork for the Hudson River School artists such as Thomas Cole and Alfred Bierstadt to the California plein- air school, whose most celebrated proponent was Guy Rose, who in turn perfected his technique by studying Claude Monet in the northern French town of Giverny, is analogous to what we have seen in the natural progression of music.

In finding inspiration, I believe another thing that is of great importance is to find that place outside the studio where you, as a writer, and as a person can find the solitude to organize your thoughts. In my case, that place is the Arroyo Seco. In the late 1800s, Charles Lummis, established a community of artists and intellectuals which included numerous talented writers, fine artists and artisans. Many of their homes still exist today along the Arroyo Seco, which starts in the San Gabriel Mountains, runs through Pasadena and ultimately joins the Los Angeles River near Lummis’ house, El Alisal. Paths along this trail, although unfortunately touched by the hands of so-called progress, still are engulfed in historic coastal live oaks and sycamores, and ancient stone-work tells the history of a different era. I have done some of my best thinking while spending time there.

Finally, we are all looking for that next job or next contact, and out of necessity that must concern a certain part of our days. I guess the point I’m trying to make is to continue to enrich your lives by leaving time for those other pursuits, which may include studying your own craft. It will not only add more soul to your artistic output, but it will also add that fine balance that is necessary to cope with the periods of inactivity or depression that are a unfortunate bi-product of what we do.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXII, Number One, Spring 2006]