The Blank Canvas
If you were about to get creative in a visual way by painting a picture, you would at this point be looking at a blank canvas: a two-dimensional empty space. It is highly likely that you would spend some time contemplating the empty space: its dimensions, its orientation, and its emptiness. Onto this canvas you would begin to imagine the picture you are going to paint: whether it is to be figurative or abstract, whether it is going to have strong or blurred outlines, which colours you are going to need. You would also start thinking about the process you were going to need to follow: which parts of the project would be best to put in place first, which colour paints you are going to need to have ready, which brushes and other apparatus will be required.
We have a turn of phrase for this, we say things like ‘I can see in my mind’s eye…’
In your mind’s eye you advance your picture far beyond a simple sketch of outline; you have a clear perception of what you are aiming for with your new painting. This image, which is known only to you until the painting is completed, can be inspired by a wide range of different things:
- A desire to capture in art something you can see: a view, object or person
- A fascination with some specific shape: stripes, geometric designs or flowing patterns
- An interest in a particular colour or contrast of colours
- An experiment with some aspect of painting technique or technical aspect of the artist’s materials
- A wish to make an artistic statement with an image, maybe something political or the expression of a particular mood you are feeling
- An intention to deliberately mimic a particular work or the style of another artist in order to improve your own artistic understanding and facility
- A commission from a patron that you have accepted in order to earn money
As you start to bring your painting into being, the image in your mind’s eye will guide your progress; simultaneously, your progress – which you actually see with your real eyes – will cause the image in your mind’s eye to become modified somewhat as the project develops. This evolving of both the imagined painting and the real painting will continue, with your mind’s eye leading the way, until you conclude that the painting is finished.
So how does composing music relate to this?
In many ways the process is similar. The music we create fills a space, only you can’t see the space; this is because the space that music fills is silence.
It is relatively simple to appreciate the space of the artist’s ‘blank canvas’: you can gain a very accurate impression of it in a very brief glance. Whatever other things around about catch our eye – other paintings, pots of paint, the paraphernalia of the artist’s studio – the empty space of the blank canvas will stand out.
This is not the case with the composer’s pre-composing blank space. In order to get an accurate estimation of, say, a 3-minute silence, you have to hear silence for 3 minutes. You will not feel how long a 3-minute silence is in a 10-second quick listen (the aural equivalent of a glance), neither will 3 minutes of silence be apparent to you in a room where lots of noises are to be heard.
So the best starting point for the composer is to have silence and to listen to it – just like the artist will look at the empty space of the canvas. And in that silence to imagine the way music might be created and shaped to fill that empty space. The silence is your blank canvas.
In short, you need to imagine with your mind’s ears…
And because you need to be imagining how you are going to fill your blank canvas – the silence – you need to do your imagining in silence. This could be in a silent room at home; it can sometimes work to take yourself outside into a quiet space (the countryside, for instance: this worked for Beethoven).
In my next blog you will see just how important this period of silence can be ...