As a song writer and composer, I thoroughly enjoy the process of creating music. By nature, we are all creative beings. Anything we do creatively is an extension or reflection of our spiritual selves. I wholeheartedly believe that.
What I enjoy most about the creative process of music is the inspiration I receive each day. As many of you know, when inspiration comes, it hits you like a bolt of lightning. It personally provides me with great satisfaction knowing that a new piece of music is about to be born. That inspiration brings forth an idea that is often times a complete and perfectly constructed composition. In its’ natural state, it is flawless. It exists and resides perfectly in some ethereal state of consciousness. In my mind, I can see it, hear it and imagine it, all in its’ flawless glory. Every sound, every instrument, every musical note, every nuance, perfectly resides in this space. It’s a gift. It feels like the guiding hand of God is directing the course of this inspiration.
Then something else happens. I must accept that gift, channel it and then translate it. By using my two crude human hands, I must attempt to adequately replicate or recreate this already perfect idea into a form more suitable for earthly consumption. For me, that’s the fun challenge of creating music.
Translating the Perfect to the Imperfect
Taking a perfect idea born of inspiration and translating it into an audible format for human enjoyment is a challenging, sometimes frustrating, but also uniquely satisfying experience. It’s where flawless inspiration meets human limitation. It’s even more challenging if you’re a perfectionist like me who wants to achieve a perfect replication of such an inspired vision. No matter how hard I try, I always feel like I come up short. I believe many musicians must feel this way. Surely the masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Tchaikovsky (and others), all channeled this inspiration. Not only did they channel it, they released it, replicated it and had the ability to overcome human limitations in their creative process; or did they? They were most certainly extremely talented. But were they ever completely satisfied with their work? It wouldn’t surprise me to learn if they weren’t. That’s something I’ll gladly ask them when I get to the other side.
Different Expressions For Different Musicians – It’s All Inspiration
We all have the innate ability to remain connected to the creative forces that supply inspiration. That inspiration guides us on our creative journey. Not all musicians are alike. Whether you’re just practicing, jamming with a group, composing an original song or score, or sitting at the piano sight-reading Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” or Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor”; some musicians dabble in one or two things and others might dabble in a little of everything. Some compose, some play, some arrange, some do it all. But inspiration remains constant no matter what form of musical expression you lean on. I’ve always had a fond appreciation for outstanding sight readers. Those who can read and play without missing a note. My admiration for those with this ability probably comes from my limitations or inability to do that proficiently.
Me at Fudan with Brandy and a Piano
When I was a young man going to school in China, I often played piano in the game room on the second floor of the cafeteria at Fudan University. I would often play while the other students were playing pool. I unintentionally provided the background music to their daily billiard battles. One day, as I was playing one of my own rough compositions, a classmate of mine from Australia named Brandy walked into the room with several booklets of sheet music in hand. Surprised, she said: “Michael, I didn’t know you played piano!” In a rather humble and self-deprecating moment, I replied: “Well, I’m not very good. I can’t read music, so I do what I can considering my limitations. I’m self taught.” She praised my playing and sat beside me on the piano bench, watching me play my song. Much of what I was playing was improvised. She stopped me and said: “I can’t believe you can’t read music but you can play all of that”. I humbly thanked her. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think what I was doing was anything special. I never had any formal music training. When I was a kid, I literally taught myself using a small Casio keyboard my parents bought me for Christmas; I used that until I bought a slightly better keyboard in high school. Of course, each time I visited my Aunt Jo and Uncle George, that gave me a golden opportunity to play their old upright player piano. From a young age, I never really had an interest learning or playing other peoples music. I always enjoyed playing what I wanted to play. But I digress.
Appreciating a True Pianist and Discovering My Confidence
Brandy told me a little bit about her background. She was from Melbourne. Her mother was Chinese and her father was Australian. She told me that she and her mother were both piano teachers. She was classically trained by her mother and both of them taught piano in Australia. Ever since moving to Shanghai her mother would send her new sheet music each month so that she could keep up with her practice. Most of the new sheet music she would receive were arrangements of popular music of the time. It was fun chatting with her about music. We discovered she and I were both fans of French pianist Richard Clayderman. We both liked much of the same music too. This rather serendipitous meeting of two very different piano players began a cordial friendship in which we would arrange time on several occasions to practice and play piano together.
After chatting for a while, I respectfully moved aside and invited Brandy to play some music. She played beautifully. Her sight-reading ability was phenomenal. After she played a few tunes, I complemented her on how terrific she was. She was exceptionally good and yet very humble. As I sat next to her, I then proceeded to play what she just finished playing on the piano, by ear. She laughed in disbelief and shook her head. She said something that I never forgot. She said: “I wish I could do what you can do.” She went on to say: “I can only play music that’s in front of me and without that sheet music, I can’t play anything. I can’t play by ear.” She capped that off by saying: “You’re really blessed and talented Michael.” She went on to tell me that she couldn’t compose music, she could only play it. That perplexed me. Needless to say, I don’t think I was capable of properly accepting or even deserving of her praise. I for one was completely amazed by her ability to play any music you put in front of her. That blew me away! That’s what I wished I could do. But here she was, a professional piano teacher, telling my that she envied little old me. That was a trip and a half. And to this day, I can fondly look back on that lovely day playing Piano with Brandy (as well as the many times after) at Fudan University, knowing that she saw something in me that helped instill greater confidence in me to continue on a greater path of music creation and exploration. So, let me just take this moment to say, Thank you Brandy!
Make Music and Enjoy the Process – But Don’t Let Technology Distract Us From Our Roots
At the end of the day, musicians create music for the love of the process. We love to play. We love to perform. And we love to compose. All of us have different experiences and aspirations. All of us have different styles of expression that help shape our paths to creativity. For me there was a chain of events that I attribute that process to. It’s a wonderful lifelong journey.
We’re currently living in a time where music and technology are continually making the process of making music more accessible to everyone. That’s a good thing. Surely, there are some pros and cons to that. As technology improves, the human touch of playing music seems to gradually diminish. We must not allow this to happen. As technology and artificial intelligence develop to even greater levels of prominence in the “music industry”, we run the risk of losing our intimate connection between inspiration and our human talent. Music was meant to be inspired, played and performed, not created artificially through a computer using keywords and algorithms. The dawn of A.I. music is upon us and it’s making the art of music creation a bit too superficial for me.
This fine line is danced on by the creators of plugins, virtual instruments and software libraries. It’s good to embrace music technology. I know I do. I remember the days when we had to pay a lot of money to record music at a high end recording studio. Back then the choices were limited. But now technology is so advanced that it’s possible to record and produce music from the comfort of your own home studio. It’s wonderful. But if we go too far, we might end up unwittingly embracing it to our own artistic detriment. We need to strike a healthy balance.
I’m opposed to the idea that pressing a key on a midi controller (that generates complete symphonic phrases and finished musical textures) is considered or equal to scoring, writing or composition. It’s not. Yet much of the manufactured music we hear these days, in many different genres, mediums and platforms, does just that. It’s taking the spirit and creativity away from music creation. It’s also fostering and encouraging a generation of computer musicians, while ditching a time honored tradition of learning how to proficiently play an instrument. Moreover, there are companies that currently offer subscription services that produce A.I. music. You simply input a few keywords describing the kind of music you want and the system will spit out an “original” composition based on the keywords and parameters you select. In fact, if you pay the top tier subscription fee, you can own the full publishing rights of your A.I. created song(s). Essentially, this technology eliminates the creative process of making music and replaces inspiration and human talent with computer algorithms. And when it’s all said and done, you can claim the A.I.composition as your own personal creation. Claiming creative ownership over something you didn’t create is not a concept I can grasp or accept.
I’m not sure what the future holds in regard to music creation. I’d like to believe that in 50 years, great value will still be placed on musical talent in the traditional sense. I believe balance is the key. Nothing can replace inspiration. Nothing can replace real talent or the human touch required to manifest such inspiration into tangibly audible music. Creation is intimately spiritual and human. We can’t let computers eliminate that irreplaceable and vitally necessary precious experience. We can harmoniously integrate the old and the new without compromising the essence of true music creation.
Keep on creating!
~ Michael Maley