Your inner radio
The music business is really weird. It’s bound to the notion that you need to produce something completely original and get famous for it. It’s as if the creator needs to be blessed by some muse from another world who gave them the keys for achieving “success.” Inspiration falls from the sky (it’s divine) and if the creator is fortunate enough to catch it, alchemy begins. In Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheé (1950), Orpheus’ muse feeds him poetry only when he listens to the radio. It’s the secret to his originality and stamina as a poet. He can decode messages only meant for him by tuning into his muse. It’s a radical idea in that the radio (a receiver by design) becomes a transmitter and a conduit for the muse to speak to us mortals. Wouldn’t it be great to have a radio like that?
Cocteau posed the question: What is the source of inspiration? Creators of all types struggle with this question. At times, inspiration flows through us so much so that the song seems to write itself. At other times, it’s difficult to even get started. The source is the place where it all begins. It’s like the North Star (Polaris) because everything we do revolves around it in some way. Guiding adventurous travelers, Polaris is a beacon. One way to tune into your muse is to reconnect with the source: rediscover what it is that inspires you to create. In computer operating systems, the kernel is a central program. It is the hub of the computer’s operating system and it controls everything; all of the other programs run through the kernel. Without it, those programs will not function correctly and will break the system. Find and stay connected to your source.
Strive for competence, not greatness
One obstacle that often gets in the way of our relationship with our source is the expectation that we need to create something “great.” How are we going to “make it” unless we write the best tune? Billy Joel has famously said that he’s not a great songwriter but a competent songwriter. That’s a pretty wild thing to say for someone who has written 33 hits. Billy Joel is giving you a clue as to where his source lives. I can’t speak for him directly but my guess is that competency is what fuels his songwriting. By taking away the expectation that your song needs to be the next hit, you give yourself a lot of space and permission to go where the muse takes you. Cut through that haze and stop criticizing yourself. You don’t make those decisions. Other people do: friends, family, critics, record labels, fans, and bloggers. The next time you sit down to write your song, use that moment to reconnect with your source and listen to what it is telling you.
Taming the muse
Everyone has their own way of working. Sometimes, when the muse wakes you up in the middle of the night, you obey, get yourself together, and go to work. Later that morning, you look at what you’ve done and think “what the hell is that?” or “this is brilliant!” This is not a stable situation. As a result, you will need to exert some control over your muse. Establishing and practicing consistent work habits will tame that beast. Consistency and concentration lets the muse know that you are working on music between the hours of 5 am and 9 am. If you get a late night call to entertain the muse, you can ignore it. This doesn’t sound very sexy and it certainly does not support the idea of the creative genius, tortured by divine messages. If Polaris is constantly moving, switching positions every night, then it cannot guide you. If your computer operating system had no kernel, then all of those programs would go unchecked, would eventually break, and leave the system inoperable.
Listen to the static
Modern radio receivers are digital. You push a button or issue a voice command and go directly to your desired station. Analog (and solid state) radios use a dial. The dial allows you to scan the bandwidth for a suitable signal within range. As part of the process, you weed through static in order to get to the music. In Steven Spielberg’s film, Poltergeist (1982), the television became a conduit for supernatural activity. There were days when television programming would go “dark” and, since there was no signal at those times, a station would simply emit static. The film’s youngest character, Carol Anne, learned to listen to the static and heard the voices of the supernatural. Those malevolent powers ultimately reached out and grabbed her, bringing her into another dimension. A medium is called to help get her back, and tells Carol Anne’s parents about the beast in the television: “It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand.”
Just as Orpheus was the only one who could understand the poetry in the radio signals, and Carol Anne could hear demons in disguise inviting her to play, you too are the only one who can hear your muse. The static is a confluence of unresolved signals, none of them dominant enough to make their way through (well, apparently, only the supernatural ones can get through). Your source (your muse), lives in that noise. Finely tune that dial and you will hear it. Tuning takes effort and concentration. It also requires that you listen and ignore the din of greatness, fame, and fortune.