If you can play with Legos, you can compose music.
It may be more accurate to say, that if you can play with Legos you can do anything artistic. But I will provide my own personal love affair with Legos and the accompanying artistic implications.
I recently purchased a 22-inch monitor to connect to my laptop. Composing music on my 13-inch laptop screen was grueling to say the least, and sometimes composing in the shared Graduate Assistant office at Central Michigan University can be distracting. This large monitor now occupies much of the space that my speakers once occupied so I had to find a way to elevate my speakers to ear level. To me, the obvious solution was Lego. I’ll just build a couple of Lego towers to solve my problem. (Side note, there seems to be confusion about the plural of Lego. I like this article’s thoughts on the matter. Here is a different take) So, as I am rummaging through my big bin of Legos that I collected from my toddler years to roughly age 20, something hits me- what I am doing in this very moment is how I SHOULD be writing music.
The best, but perhaps most embarrassing part, is that I have had this basically drilled into my head in my last two years of education but it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand the concept. During my undergrad at Grand Valley State University, I studied composition with new music master Bill Ryan. One of the first things he taught me was the outline method (I don’t know if that is what he would call it, but that is essentially what it is). This is the musical equivalent of outlining that we all learned in grade school English. You can first set the duration of the piece, then mark where you want tonal centers to shift, how you want overall dynamics to ebb and flow, specify the instrumentation density, etc. Then, you can zoom in on the first two minutes of the piece and specify all the parameters within that time frame, and so on. This method is extremely useful for when you have to write a piece but do not have that explosive artistic inspiration where you write feverishly for days on end. So how does this tie in to my Lego towers?
There was something that existed only in my head, and I devised a way to turn that idea into a tangible object. Is that not the essence of art? David Lang says “I take very seriously the idea that as a composer, my job is to make something in the world which didn’t exist yesterday.” What a beautifully concise job description of composers. A personal example of this- for a while now I have wanted to write a piece that expresses my feelings about Israeli apartheid. After my Lego epiphany, I realize all I have to do sit down and write out exactly the things I want to express about the situation, then maybe create an outline, and then begin coming up with musical ideas and applying them to my outline. This is exactly what an architect does. They are asked to build something which does not yet exist, they draw up a blue print, decide on materials, and the begin construction. (I am not an architect, so I hope I do no disrespect to the art form with my oversimplified assumption of what goes in to architecture.)
Trying to write piece of music using the rock ‘n’ roll method (i.e. coming up with an idea and building on that idea as you go based your own emotional responses to the connectivity of various themes) of composition is certainly not the most effective way to write a large-scale concert piece. I have used this method more times than I would like to admit, and with some success. But my recent attendance to a John Corigliano master class solidified my trepidation towards the rock ‘n’ roll method. He criticized of a lot of contemporary classical pieces and how often they have several peaks and valleys throughout the piece because there was seemingly no direction, no plan on what the piece was supposed to accomplish. I did not entirely agree with his assessment, which seemed aimed at minimalists and post-minimalists, but the point he makes is an important one. The most successful pieces are those with a POINT. What about absolute music? What about a Bach fugue? Well, did they not have a point? Yes, the point was strictly musical, but it was still a point. Bach would probably sit down at his keyboard, come up with a motive that he really loved and then spin out that motive in every way his 18th century mind could conceive, then, with all the musical brick and mortar laid out before him, he could assemble a fugue or an invention or a sonata.
I recommend everyone go out and buy as many Legos as possible for your children, or yourself, and the next time you need something to prop up your windows- build it. The next time you need a container for your pencils- build it. The next time you want to imagine riding in a spaceship that travels to different worlds- build it. Composers should try to think of their writing process as building with a specific structure in mind. The simple task of creating practical objects out of Legos is great exercise for your creative mind.