I recently completed a collection of compositions that share the theme of heat. It’s called Thérmos, and, until today, I had not actually put this into words. But writing liner notes for an album makes you think about what it sounds like, and what it is about. I meant the music to express what I know and remember about remote places, arid, dry regions, and deserts – as opposed to the previous album which was about water. What I know about deserts and so on, comes from books and poems that I’ve read, and music, films, paintings, and photographs of places like the Sahara Desert, the Empty Quarter, the Gobi, the Kalahari, Tibet, Central Asia, etc., the history of those places, and the people who live there. I suppose amongst all that is a fair amount of clichés, legends, and stereotypes.
Talk about a mixed bag of ideas
When I was putting together the preproduction notes for the songs – the notes about what a piece consists of and how it was created – I realized that my memories and references are really wildly diverse. They include Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) as a very fey, slightly mad English officer; ENYA’s lyrics for her song Pilgrim, via Chilly Gonzales; the Metal/throat-singing Mongolian band The Hu; the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet, and even the poetry of the Afrikaans writer, D.J. Opperman, in his collection, Komas uit ‘n Bamboesstok (meaning “Comas from a Bamboo Stake” or “Bamboo Pole”).
This last, unlikely lead emerged from my memory like a tumbleweed rolling from behind a dune: One of the themes in Opperman’s collection is the travels through Central and East Asia of Marco Polo (1254 – 1324), and a 17th century Dutchman called Willem Bontekoe. After all these years, I still remember the feeling and images of those poems.
All of what’s in your Mister Potato Head Bin
Yes, I know, the stuff that gets stuck in one’s head is utterly weird. As Terry Pratchett wrote:
When one of those little “particles” hits you, it can lead to a Eureka! moment of inspiration. I’d been carrying those odds and ends about exotic, far-flung and hot regions of the world in my mind for decades – part historical fact, part clichés and part movie lore. (DJ and producer Deadmau5 calls it your “Mister Potato Head Bin” – that place, mentally or physically, where you put all the ideas you might use down the road.)
Somehow they must’ve popped into my consciousness, because how else could I have ended up writing for instruments like the Mongolian morin khuur, the Persian/Iranian Santoor, the Turkish Saz Zither and Saz Lute, and of course the Arabic Oud – and a grand piano? Luckily, I discovered a term “World Fusion” which means music in which styles from different cultures and regions have been fused together. Because it is indeed, a fusion.
Relax and let the inspiration hit you
There are many studies and models about what creativity is, about the role that inspiration plays in the creation of new things, and about precisely how the creative process happens in your brain. A 2003 study states that:
There’s a lot more to this, but basically, you get the inspiration but then you have to do something with it, in other words, the perspiration part, ha-ha. Otherwise you just sit there and admire the thought and nothing comes of it.
The point is, that if you let yourself relax, forget about conventions and restrictions and other people’s expectations, the things in the Mr. Potato Head Bin in your mind will emerge, and you will create something that is uniquely yours and that expresses what you want to say. Afterwards, you get to spend weeks and months fixing it all up and torturing yourself about the quality of your product.
And what goes for music, goes for novels, too, of course.
Which led to a poem
When I finished the liner notes, I was so tired that I was just sitting in a daze in front of my computer and these words – Ancient Greek and Latin terms that I had used – came into my head, and me being me, I made a line with them, and then a rhyme, and so on. And that became a poem about the album:
HEAT Thérmos and aqua, terra and solis - All that is desert and none that give solace Waves not of water but sand in an ocean which flows in a swirl of Brownian motion Whispers of voices as though the wind speaks Echoes of music from faraway peaks Dust swirls from tracks across arid chasms Unreal horizons with verdant phantasms And the sun cast its rays like a god on a throne with the power of thérmos, aqua, terra and stone
NOTE: to the purists out there who think that there are 2 grammar mistakes in this poem – there are not. “Cast” is used in the past tense (the past tense of “cast” is “cast”) and is not supposed to be “casts”. Also, “give” (plural) can be used with “none” if the “none” is general, many, or unspecified. It can be “none that gives” or “none that give”, depending on what you mean.
“Thérmos”, (“θερμός”) in Ancient Greek means “warm” or “hot”. Aqua is latin for water, terra is Latin for earth and solis is Latin for the sun.
I have to say, writing this was much, much easier than writing the music, and much, much easier than writing lyrics.
Line by line, the images in the poem refer to the tracks or songs on the album. One track is about the desert called “The Empty Quarter”. Another is called “Meditation” which has chants in it like those that I imagine might come from a retreat in remote mountains. There is a track called “Silk Road”, about travellers in a caravan crossing dusty Central Asian plains the way Marco Polo did, and another called “Chimera” about being fooled by desert mirages. “Echoes of music” refers to a track called “Granada” which is in the style of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz.
Uh-oh, it’s a Keatsian Ode!
As to the structure: it’s two quatrains and a couplet, which makes it a Keatsian Ode, if you want to fit it into a category. (“Keatsian” after the English poet, John Keats.) A Keatsian Ode has three verses, ten lines, and a rhyme scheme of: abab/cdec/de. Tah-dah! The process of turning inspiration into action and something in a specific form is the hard part of doing something creative.
This explains why poets can suffer from Odes, a form of exhaustion that is fatal. (Just kidding.)
The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities, Victoria C. Oleynick, Todd M. Thrash*, Michael C. LeFew, Emil G. Moldovan and Paul D. Kieffaber, Department of Psychology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA. Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 25, 2014. Retrieved April 20, 2022