Monday, February 22, 2016

Guest Artist Feature: Composer David Gonzalez

The Idea of the Creative Process

Creative inspiration is a very fickle thing. So many times, I have experienced blissfully wonderful moments where music in my mind just seems to come forth effortlessly, both in the practice room and at the composer’s desk. But these are rare occurrences, and very often fleeting to the point of being unpredictable.

The idea of a creative process is itself another elusive concept; everyone has their own approach, but if you ask an artist or composer to define his or her methods, you might receive a very opaque and lengthy explanation that goes nowhere. As for me, when I try to pinpoint my creative approach in concrete terms… I can’t, but I will try here anyway.

For all of the vague and often romanticized images that creative thinkers tend to gravitate towards, when thinking about and trying to explain art, it may not be all that complicated. It comes down to two interrelated ideas: imitation and the combining old ideas in new ways.

The first thing that must be done before making anything new is to look at something old. Proof of this can be seen in the career of artists from the past, across the arts. Beethoven looked to Mozart and Haydn before him, French Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Monet looked to Delacroix, and even Shakespeare studied the Ancient Greek tragedies before creating some of the most indelible works of literature in human history. How can anyone make anything great if they’ve never seen or heard anything worthy of attention? Noted composer, Igor Stravinksy, put it this way: “A good composer does not borrow, he steals.” The writer T. S. Eliot very similarly said: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” (Hmm…)

More often than not, when the music I write feels like it’s good, it turns out to be a reworking of a melody or harmony that I’ve played or heard before. That’s probably the reason why it sticks in my mind and seems to carry some weight in the score: I enjoyed it when I first heard it in someone else’s work.

That being said, of course, I don’t mean to diminish the value of the individual creative mind; if anything, this is all the more compelling a case for the appreciation for what our brains can do. I find it astonishing that the human mind can take such disparate ideas, from all it encounters, and mesh them together so intricately to create something unique.

Influences for Composing: “A Moment in Time

In writing my solo piano piece, A Moment In Time, I definitely took what I had heard in other piano pieces before and cherry-picked certain ideas that I liked. Here are three piano pieces that were most likely in my head when I wrote this work:

Un Sospiro (literally ‘a sigh’) by Franz Liszt: This piece by the master of the piano is one of my favorites. It creates the sense of relaxation in which time seems to move slowly, but more than anything, it is very reflective. I love the idea that a piece of music can seem placidly benign at the surface but have an abundance of activity underneath.

Listen Here:

Ballade by Claude Debussy: I actually listened to this piece every day before I worked on A Moment In Time. Debussy is one of my musical heroes, and as such, it was inevitable that his pianistic style should spill over into mine. Ballade is one of Debussy’s early piano works, and its elegant simplicity was such an inspiration to me.
Un Barque sur L’Ocean by Maurice Ravel: When I first heard this piece, I was totally floored by its rich harmonies, inexorable motion, and inexplicable fluidity. The flurry of arpeggios and hidden melodies found within this work leaves an indelible impression as striking as piano music can get. Without being able to explain or justify it, I know for a fact that this piece has permeated so much of my piano playing.

Listen Here:

My Creative Process

In my opinion, writing a piece of music is not all that different from writing a research paper or essay: you decide on the subject matter, you outline a few ideas, you free-write or sketch some material, you write some drafts, and you revise until you feel satisfied with what you have. This pretty much sums up the process that I have to go through to produce a piece. To take the analogy further, in the same way an essay is written, where the author must have source material from which to base their arguments and ideas, I then ask: is this not the same as having a set of musical pieces that inspire what you write as a composer?

As such, my piano piece, A Moment In Time, began with free-improvisation sessions in graduate school, which took place on almost a daily basis in between my classes. The significance of this activity is that when I began to play music on the piano, I was hardly setting out to write a new piece. Instead, the playing was simply for my own enjoyment and as a way to decompress. As I improvised, I found that there was a particular set of arpeggiated harmonies[1] that I came back to again and again.

These became the beginning of my piano piece, A Moment in Time. Once I had settled on developing this musical gesture of arpeggiated harmonies into a full piece, I had to decide on what musical elements I would also explore and utilize in my work. My approach began by making a list of categories like Mood, Meter, Key/Tonal Center[2], Form, and Models. For each of these, I would brainstorm for ideas to fit the composition using my models: Un Sospiro, Ballade, and Un Barque sur L’Ocean, searching for sounds that could be used in my piano work. I desired that these be appropriate, organic and natural to the instrument, considering things like voicings[3], arpeggios, use of the sustain pedal, and so on.

I realized that the key components for this piano piece would be harmony and the implied or resultant melodies[4]. I decided not to change the rhythm much, limiting the notes to eighth-notes and quarter-notes[5], mostly in the form of the ascending arpeggio. To generate more musical material for my piece, I would focus on the internal motion of the arpeggiated chords as well as the melodic lines formed by the outer voices.[6]

What followed was a painstaking process of reworking the material I created, through trial and error. Some ideas I kept, others I discarded. Some nights felt like I was making no progress at all, while others felt like I was a seasoned pro. The key to this process, in my mind, was to immerse myself into the material and continually play with the ideas. There is something to be said about the processing power of the human brain. I am surprised how often ideas seem to form when I step away from a task; it’s in stepping back that the dots are better able to connect. During one of my composition sessions, which can last a few hours, taking a break, even for as little as 1 minute at a time, can keep my mind from shutting down.

After this process of content generation, I had gathered enough material, all from the same musical realm, for this composition. The next step was to organize it in such a way that made for a coherent form, comprising a natural and logical progression of musical ideas. Although I normally like to decide the form[7] of the piece before writing any of the material, with A Moment in Time, the structure shaped in an organic way after I had written all of the notes.

In the end, I greatly wanted A Moment In Time to sound something reminiscent of sitting in silence, a peaceful seclusion, a place (in the mind) where time is indefinite. Even if we try to define or capture a moment, it eludes us, so, for me, a moment can be any length of time—It just depends on the mindset.

A Moment in Time, Solo Piano 

Last Thoughts

Ultimately, my compositional process consists a great deal of listening to and assimilating the music of the past that I want to emulate in my own works. Recreating the material, but with our own voice, is the real work of any composer. I think this is how it is for most of us as artists; we are listeners and observers first, and re-creators second.

Here’s to finding something worth stealing, something that moves us, something that will inspire our creativity! 



David R. Gonzalez is a composer of Classical, Jazz, and Electronic music based in Austin, TX who holds a M.M. in Composition from Texas State University and a B.M. in Music Business from New Mexico State University.

As a percussionist, David Gonzalez has a healthy obsession with rhythm and the perception of time, and as a disciple of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, who have both written beautiful music beyond compare, he continually seeks out music that appeases the soul and inspires a greater appreciation for life.  

Listen to more his music at:

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[1] Arpeggiated harmony definition. Harmony—a collection of notes that are typically grouped together due to the pleasing nature of their simultaneous occurrence. Arpeggio—when the notes that belong to a chord (harmony) are played separately in succession rather than simultaneously.   
[2] Key/Tonal Center—deciding which note is the most important and what collection of pitches to utilize along with that note.
[3] Vocings—on the piano, every eight white keys the pitches repeat, which means that any particular pitch (note) can be sounded in seven or eight places on the piano. This is what the author is referring to with this technical terminology. 
[4] Melody—the most recognizable part of any piece/the part you are usually able to sing.
[5] These terms refer to note duration values—how long they are held by the performer.
[6] Too technical to explain in short footnote—please note that the author plans on using these musical elements as the basis of his composition.
[7] Form—the order of musical events and sections of a composition, such as Intro, Melody, Development, New Idea, Etc...

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