“I know that there’s a thing called ‘writer’s block,’ but, just that term—if it becomes kind of a reality, if you believe that term—you could maybe get writer’s block. Fearing it, you would bring it to yourself. All it means is, the ideas are not coming. You’re out fishing, your hook is in the water, you’ve got bait on it, but you’re not catching anything today. It just means that: you keep fishing. You’ve got to have patience.” -David Lynch
Last week, I released a new music video of my big band, Big Heart Machine, performing “Unblock the Stoppage,” the first track from our newest album Live at The Jazz Gallery. I composed this piece in January of 2018 in the midst of the worst bout of writer’s block that I have ever experienced. I’m sure you, dear reader, have been in a similar situation: fretting about an impending deadline, wasting hours sitting at the piano, staring impotently at a blank piece of manuscript paper (or computer screen, or whatever), pacing around the apartment leveling silent invectives at your delicate inner self.
I’d had writer’s block before, but never in such a crippling way. In retrospect, I think I know why I couldn’t write. At the time, I had just finished recording my first album of large ensemble recordings. I was a budding composer. Not even, really. I was aspiring to become a budding composer. I had never had any real deadlines before. Nor had I ever had any real expectations for my music. But now, with a studio recording under my belt, I was certain that I would never again be able to match its success. I wanted everything I was writing to be “better” than my previous efforts. I was sure that my band would be disappointed in my lack of creativity. I was, clearly, lost in my own head.
Releasing “Unblock the Stoppage” to the world last week got me thinking again about writer’s block. My hope is that sharing a simple strategy for dealing with the inability to compose will be of use to you. You can actually hear this strategy at work in “Unblock the Stoppage”; in fact, that is exactly what I’ve come to love about the piece. Let me explain.
“Things’ll come to you”
I love what MF Doom has to say here, and if you find that you can’t write—and don’t have an impending deadline—I strongly cosign his advice to “leave it alone, do something else.” By all means: read, play with your children, sit in silence, go on a walk. These are certainly better ways to spend your time than sitting alone ruminating, and, as an added bonus, you may be struck by an idea when you are least expecting it.
But what about when a composition or arrangement is due soon? Maybe in a couple days? Tomorrow morning? You have to be able to deliver something at a professional standard if you’d like to build a good reputation and get more work. (Even if you don’t have a deadline, I think it’s a great idea to create artificial deadlines for yourself. Doing this will force you to at least write something. For example, scheduling a reading session with your friends is a great low-stress way to force yourself to finish writing something.)
In the case of “Unblock the Stoppage,” I took the advice of my former teacher, Jim McNeely (who incidentally wrote a beautiful essay for this very blog not too long ago). In a private lesson, Jim once told me to focus simply on filling as many pages as I could with notes. He instructed me to spin ideas out in any and every way imaginable without impeding myself by worrying about whether or not those ideas might be good or bad, useful or useless. I remember him saying, “Get a pencil in your hand, get your hand moving, and enjoy the process of exploration.” John Cage put it another way: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”
So, years after that formative lesson, I took Jim’s advice to heart. I filled many pages with sketches of ideas. As it turned out, generating the raw material wasn’t the real issue for me; the problem was that all of my ideas were totally incoherent. I couldn’t find a common thread. I couldn’t imagine a form that could contain such a weird admixture of nonsense. Despite my best efforts, I was still blocked up.
Looking at my sketches today, it’s clear that I was grasping at straws. A lot of my first ideas are just geometric shapes, random sequences of notes, and vague instructions to myself.
On the third staff of this first page of sketches, I wrote a note to myself: “Vibes and piano have retrograde rhythms… one a composed accelerando, one a [ritardando].” This vague kernel of an idea would eventually become the culminating section of the entire piece! Except, instead of using only vibraphone and piano, I had the entire rhythm section slowing down while the horns simultaneously sped up, creating a novel and discombobulating effect.
On a subsequent page, I was further experimenting with temporal illusions. Look at the bottom left corner of the following page. I wrote to myself, “Each section [of the band] at [their] own pace.” This unclear instruction is followed by three staves of ideas that I spun out from the interval series of the composition’s main melody. Ultimately, I ended up freely presenting these at three structural junctures in the final version of “Unblock the Stoppage.” At these moments, the conductor cedes control of the band; sub-groups within the orchestra are instructed to listen to one another at proceed at their own unique pace, disregarding any musicians who are not in their indicated group.
On the same page, you’ll find a decidedly conventional harmonization of the main melody for the saxophone section. This bit made it into “Unblock the Stoppage” as well, in a moment where nostalgia for the classic big band sound is distorted by slow, microtonal undulations.
The following page just has a lot of scribbles and the instruction (in all caps) “THINK ABOUT MINGUS MEETS MESHUGGAH. SLOPPY GESTURES & TEXTURES.” I don’t know if I achieved the former, but I nailed the latter!
The point is, I had a plethora of ideas, but I hadn’t the slightest clue how they might work together as a lucid piece of music. Previously, my process had been more linear; idea A would generate the material for idea B, and these ideas would be clearly related by some common thread. The form would be obviously extrapolated from the inherent necessities of the material. But, in this case, I was a fisherman lost at sea, desperately searching for any beacon of light.
“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”
As my deadline approached, and my desperation peaked, I was struck with the most obvious idea. Why not just paste together all of the pages of random musical material strewn about my studio? Why not simply embrace—nay, exploit—the incoherence of my ideas? That, in and of itself, could make for an interesting formal device.
As it turns out (completely unbeknownst to myself at the time [which is so often the case]), I was not the first composer to build an entire piece of music around disorganized, unrelated materials. In fact, one of my favorite contemporary composers, Andrew Norman, reached the exact same conclusion in dealing with his writer’s block while writing his orchestral composition “Unstuck.” In that piece’s program notes, Norman explained:
I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere. It was not until the following May, when I saw a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and remembered one of its iconic sentences, that I had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and the realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome.
I only discovered Norman’s composition while researching this essay, and I was excited by a number of eerie resonances shared by our compositions. Most obviously, our titles are uncannily similar. Looking more closely, I discovered that Norman- who is ten years older than me- wrote “Unstuck” exactly ten years before I wrote “Unblock the Stoppage.” It seems that we both had a moment of crisis in our late twenties due to impending deadlines and lack of cogency in our pre-compositional ideas. And we both ended up with musical works whose raison d’être was, essentially, lack of coherence.
Upon further reflection, I realized that these commonalities are in no way surprising. In fact, it’s safe to assume that this very thing happens to people in all sorts of creative endeavors: after some initial career success, the desire to better oneself results in a lot of second-guessing, hemming-and-hawing, and stressing out. These emotional barriers make the act of creating something new all but impossible.
Norman and I found the same solution to our problem with compositional ineffectiveness. We simply embraced our impotence! In Norman’s case, it seems that through wrestling with an overabundance of seemingly-random ideas, he stumbled onto a mode of composition that resonated not only with himself, but with the modern zeitgeist of short attention spans and overwhelming streams of competing information. His recent orchestral masterpiece “Play” inhabits the same sound-world consisting of an immense amount of discreet ideas deployed in rapid succession.
In my own case, since those anxiety-ridden weeks during which I composed “Unblock the Stoppage,” I truly haven’t had an issue with generating new music. I hope I’m permanently cured, but most likely, I’ll find myself blocked up again. I’m afraid it might be the case that we must go through a dry spell or ten in order to learn for ourselves how to deal with writer’s block- just as Norman, McNeely, Cage, MF Doom, and Lynch have all done. Maybe my experience will save one or two of you from such a fate, but as I sit here typing, I admit I’m doubtful.
So, when that inevitable moment arrives (if it hasn’t already), I leave you with this advice: it ain’t that heavy, my friend. We have to stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves to write the Next Great Piece. Instead, I suggest that a more effective goal would be to just write Something. Anything. Then, do it again. And again and again and again. In other words, have patience and keep fishing.
About the Author:
“Perhaps you’ve heard about a new big-band resurgence in New York. Near the center of that wave is this 18-piece ensemble led by a Midwestern-born multireedist and composer named Brian Krock.” (Nate Chinen, WBGO) Known mainly as the brain behind the behemoth band Big Heart Machine, composer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock writes music that simultaneously embraces and transcends the diverse array of musical genres he works within. A fierce and probing improviser on the alto saxophone, he has also had the opportunity to make creative music in New York’s classical, theater, and pop music scenes playing all of the woodwind instruments.
A recipient of a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music, Brian was a student of world-renowned jazz composer Jim McNeely and acclaimed opera composer Dr. J. Mark Stambaugh. Highlights from his long list of awards and honors include the Aaron Copland Recording Grant, the Manhattan Prize in Composition for his “String Quartet No. 1,” two ASCAP Young Jazz Composer’s Awards, a composer-residency at the Bloomingdale School of Music, and most recently commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Metropole Orkest with Grammy-winning R&B vocalist Lalah Hathaway. Krock’s music is notable for its seamless incorporation of contemporary classical techniques, heavy metal aesthetics, and free group improvisation. In this way, he hopes to continue the tradition of saxophonist/composers such as Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Tim Berne, and Henry Threadgill. For Krock, composition is a daily practice that challenges him to continually rethink the norms of the jazz tradition whilst paying tribute to the daring iconoclasts who paved the way toward creative freedom.