We asked Ben to talk a little bit about his contribution to The Debussy Project, …before they were breathed… . In this post, Ben talks about inspiration, theory, and creativity:
I like to approach each new piece with a mental concept. An image, an emotion, an atmosphere. Setting out to compose with only a vague theoretical concept, or a set of pitches or a row, has never led to a successful piece for me. I find myself more reliably inspired by prose and poetry, film and paintings, and rarely moved by other music to write something myself. So I found myself struggling to compose a piece that would act as a prelude – and a reaction - to the Debussy Sonata, since this is antithetical to my usual process as a composer. I decided that I needed to step away from the Debussy, to find an external inspiration for this piece.
I found the spark I needed in the writing of Henry David Thoreau, a writer who was a generation ahead of, and a whole continent away from France in 1915, where Debussy wrote the Sonata. In a journal entry from August of 1841, Thoreau – who was an avid amateur musician – writes:
I sailed on the North River last night with my flute, and my music was a tinkling stream which meandered with the river, and fell from note to note as a brook from rock to rock. I did not hear the strains after they had issued from the flute, but before they were breathed into it, for the original strain precedes the sound by as much as the echo follows after, and the rest is the perquisite of the rocks and trees and beasts. Unpremeditated music is the true gauge which measures the current of our thoughts, the very undertow of our life’s stream.
This lovely idea, that music exists before it is ever even sounded, served as the impetus for my piece. I began to imagine my work as a ghostly prelude to the Debussy…actually as several ghostly preludes to the Debussy. The piece has an overall shape, and musical ideas are passed among the players of the ensemble, but the final impression should be almost hallucinatory. …before they were breathed… is designed to emerge from silence…to shimmer, and fade.