Two forms of imagination: synthetic and creative

Read more about the two forms of imagination
I collect quotes from people, most of them writers and composers, describing the influence of creative imagination on their work.
During an appearance on the television show BBC Breakfast, the acclaimed film composer David Arnold was asked how he goes about composing music. He replied: “You walk around with your aerials out and it gets delivered to you. It’s more about feeling it than thinking about it.”

Read more

David Arnold: The Hollywood composer on the scores that came to him in dreams, Puff Daddy, and why an MP3 is no match for a live orchestra, on The Independent website

The radio metaphor

According to biographers of [Paul] McCartney and The Beatles, McCartney composed the entire melody [of Yesterday] in a dream one night in his room at the Wimpole Street home of his then girlfriend Jane Asher and her family. Upon waking, he hurried to a piano and played the tune to avoid forgetting it. Initially concerned though if he had subconsciously plagiarised someone else’s work, as he put it: “For about a month I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before. Eventually it became like handing something in to the police. I thought if no one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.”

Source: Wikipedia – Yesterday (Beatles song)

Quora question: What was John Lennon’s secret in songwriting?

Answer (excerpt): Lennon’s personal assistant, Fred Seaman, said Lennon would sing a melody with made up words with the intent of changing them later. Then he would sit for hours at the piano and sing the same song in progress over and over waiting for the right words to come to him. He told Seaman the right words would eventually “come down from above”.

Kym Chaffin | View source (Quora)

The creativity of both of the bands was largely unconscious. As Joy Division’s drummer, Stephen Morris, has recalled, “We never talked about [the music] or thought about it. It just worked.” For both bands, their unconscious creativity led to a prolific output. In a professional recording career lasting less than two years, Joy Division recorded over 40 songs. Similarly, in a period of two and a half years, Black Sabbath released four full-length albums, at a time when they were touring almost constantly.

The members of both bands describe how their songs seem to come through them rather than from them, almost as if they were “channeling” them. Black Sabbath’s bass player Geezer Butler described how the band’s “first four albums just came from nowhere.” Similarly, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook has described how their songs “just flowed like rain … We couldn’t stop writing them.” Joy Division’s most famous song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was written in three hours, while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” was written in 20 minutes, after the band was asked to “jam something” at the end of a studio session. Because of this, both bands felt that their music was something “other” to them, a mysterious force that they couldn’t explain or understand.

Group Flow: When Groups Gain Access to a Mysterious Creativity, by Steve Taylor, on Psychology Today website
The musician, singer and songwriter Nick Cave was asked:

“I’m a songwriter. I’m seriously blocked. Do u have any spare lyrics I can have?”

This is part of Nick Cave’s response:

“My advice to you is to change your basic relationship to songwriting. You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in. Songs, in my experience, are attracted to an open, playful and motivated mind. Throw my song away – it isn’t that good anyway – sit down, prepare yourself and write your own damn song. You are a songwriter. You have the entire world to save and very little time to do it. The song will find its way to you. If you don’t write it, someone else will. Is that what you want? If not, get to it.”

View the entire answer on The Red Hand Files website

Torsten Schmidt: A lot of your writing process, you once said, comes from dreams and stuff.

Todd Rundgren: Well, it doesn’t come from dreams. What happens is I will start working on a project, and then I will start writing songs as a part of that project. So my head suddenly gets into this space of writing. And that completely spills over into my subconscious life, even when I’m sleeping. So I’ll suddenly, in the middle of this, I’ll have a dream that I’m in the studio, listening on the speakers to a song. And sometimes it’s a really simple song, something I possibly would not even write. A song like “Bang The Drum All Day,” I literally dreamed that song. I didn’t dream every single word of it, I had to kind of figure out how to move the whole thing along, but the whole chorus and everything: total, total dream.

Source: Red Bull Music Academy website
Marianne Elliott-Said (Poly Styrene, frontwoman for the punk rock band X-Ray Spex) said, “I just channel my songs like a medium.” Source: The Guardian, 26 April 2011 (view).

Interviewer: What is your recipe for writing such vivid characters?

Quentin Tarantino: This is not in any way a facetious answer to this, but: I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it – other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge. I listen to what everyone says, I watch little idiosyncratic behavior, people tell me a joke and I remember it. People tell me an interesting story in their life and I remember it.

Interviewer: And if you don’t remember it?

Quentin Tarantino: Then it was probably not worth remembering. The thing is, it’s in there – whether it’s six months or fifteen years later, when I go and write my new characters, my pen is like an antenna, it gets that information, and all of a sudden these characters come out more or less fully-formed. I don’t write their dialogue, I get them talking to each other.

Source: The Talks.
Novelist Ian Rankin said, “I’m not really in control at all of what I’m writing. It’s almost as though before I start writing there’s a shape sitting there that I’ve not seen yet, and when I start to write the novel the shape will reveal itself to me, the novel will decide which way it wants to go.” Source: The Guardian, 26 March 2011 (view).

I think a lot of the lyrics and the story come about by free association … you kind of pluck them out of the air. And it is only when you’ve written them down you think: well where the hell did that come from?

Sting, cited by Benny (Sodajerker) in The Surprising Truth about STING’S Songwriting Process (video, 11:03)

Rick Beato (prominent music YouTuber): Do you write while you’re touring?
Dominic Miller (Sting’s guitarist): I don’t write while I’m touring. It doesn’t inspire me so much. I like to write when everything stops. I need to summon the ideas, to turn on the signals. I turn on the wifi. And I go for long walks. And I get into that creative zone. And I open the windows to creativity.

Dominic Miller Wrote The Most Famous Riff Of All Time — YouTube video (1:03:43) featuring Rick Beato and Dominic Miller
Lionel Richie was asked “Where do your melodies come from?” He replied, “I wish I knew. It’s like radio stations playing in my head. I’m in the shower singing along to this great song, and then I stop one moment and go, ‘Hey, it’s not on the radio.’ What’s frightening about it is I’m not singing a song, I’m singing along with the song that’s playing in my head.” Source: Deseret News / Parade magazine, 31 January 1993.
Danielle Haim

When you write a song it’s almost mystical. It feels as if the words just come out and it can be months or even years later you realise: “That’s what was happening.”

Haim | Credit: Raph_PH | CC BY 2.0

Danielle Haim (centre), ‘It shook me to my core’: 50 years of Carole King’s Tapestry, on The Guardian website, 12 February 2021 | Photo credit: Raph_PH | CC BY 2.0

You grab it, slide around on it, and feel it with your hands,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea once said of his signature instrument. “You slap, pull, thump, pluck, and pop, and you get yourself into this hypnotic state, if you’re lucky, beyond thought, where you’re not thinking because you’re just a conduit for this rhythm, from wherever it comes from, from God to you and this instrument, through a cord and a speaker.

The 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time, Rolling Stone, 1 July 2020
Bryan Ferry was asked by the singer and radio presenter Cerys Matthews about his approach to songwriting. He answered, “When you get it right, it’s like someone is writing it for you.” Source: BBC Radio 6 Music, 30 December 2012.

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?

Frank Zappa: Well, I’m specialised. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on a guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear on stage have been practised over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic knowledge of the mechanical operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination. And when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m gonna play or what I’m gonna do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it, and depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation.

YouTube Shorts | View

Lyrics emerge in a spontaneous and revelatory fashion, going through many revisions before [Leonard] Cohen is satisfied that he can “get behind” their ideas. You kind of keep your tools sharp by working all the time. We are professionals. You can’t wait for inspiration. I try to do it every day. When something good comes, you have to be prepared to polish it, carve it and chisel it, that’s the work. But the actual intention, what you are really going to be writing about, that’s going to come up from a really authentic place that is deep and over which you exercise no conscious control.

Leonard Cohen at 80: “The other side of the hill is no time to tarry”, by Neil McCormick, in The Telegraph

Paul Zollo: Is it a sense that you are reaching outside of yourself to write these songs?

Leonard Cohen: If I knew where the songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition.

Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo | via Eric Lynn’s Substack: Undefining

It was [Nitin Sawhney’s] interest in theoretical physics, combined with ancient Indian philosophy, that inspired Confluence. “We started talking about where creativity came from and we thought about people like Michelangelo, who said that the statues were already hidden in the marble around you. Or Ravi Shankar, who said the raag exists in the air around you. Or John Coltrane, who talked about improvisation being like a bird that you have to catch in the air,” he says.

Oh no! Sawhney’s off talking about physics again…, in The Independent on Sunday
Martha Graham

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Martha Graham

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