The Hypnagogic Method

Composition means a lot more than just learning scales and modal harmonies. In the vein of Stephen King’s On Writing, I wanted to actually talk about what I do when writing music.

The single most helpful thing I did for increasing output was eliminate setup. A guitarist would probably think of this as keeping your strings in tune. For a long time, every time I wanted to make music I had to go through a minor but annoying connection of wires and controllers and microphones and things. I’ve come to learn how important it is to be able to just sit down, hit a few power switches, and then run with it.

A lot of us are used to writing at night, simply because that’s when we get the time. There’s a reason they don’t call it sunlighting, right? Lately I’ve been fortunate enough (har har) to have freetime every morning, and that has made all the difference. But lately I’ve found, and Stephen King backs me up in his book, along with Bobby McFerrin and a host of other professionals, that being creative in the morning is the way to go. Your mind is fresh and clear from daily strains, and you aren’t constantly battling exhaustion or the threat of imminent dawn.

My current project is a musical/rock opera, which is a first for me. It’s challenging because all the music has to have a very direct purpose and meaning, so I can’t go with my usual method of simply improvising and seeing what happens. So I’ve developed a method I call “The Hypnagogic Method of Composition,” whose sole purpose is to direct my thoughts when I first wake up to a certain creative problem. All you have to do is go to sleep reminding yourself to think about your current problem in the morning, and give yourself a little time between waking and actually getting up. That’s it. It’s a bit like magic, honestly, but it works.

After that it just takes practice. In order for this method to work, you have to be able to start working immediately after an idea strikes. One of the key elements to the hypnagogic stage is amnesia, so unless you start instantly you’ll forget your idea. If you manage to get down your concept/solution/spark of brilliance, later that day you’ll go back and listen to what you recorded and it’ll seem like someone else made it, but that’s the beauty of this method. You don’t think, you just do. It’s also remarkably handy in that you work for a reasonably short time every day, which is far superior to an eight hour session once every Tuesday night.

My set up is simple. I have one condenser mic, a nice soundcard, and a 49-key MIDI controller. I run that through a plethora of softsynths and ultimately Ableton Live. I use Ableton as opposed to other more technical programs because, since it’s intended as a performance tool, I feel it’s most conducive to improvisational composition. I’ve got a bunch of fretted instruments that I tune every day. This is because I can’t count the number of times I thought I was recording a scratch track, only to later discover that that recording was absolute magic and I’ll never get that sound ever again. If all that went down with out of tune strings, I would be, to put it mildly, displeased with myself.

I’m pretty good at getting the sounds in my head out via Reason and Guitar Rig. I’m most inspired by new sounds, which is why so many people find my music so oddly eclectic. It’s also why electronic music is so valuable to me, because the possibilities are quite literally endless. So I wake up, stew for a while, fading in and out of the real world, then notice something good has floated to the surface. I flip open the Macbook, hit two power switches, and activate phantom power. I open up Reason and Ableton, and either start cycling presets or singing or playing or whatever. Cycling the presets used to take a while, but once I got comfortable with altering parameters left and right I cut browsing time down by something like ninety percent.

In On Writing, King gripes a lot about people asking him The Question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I think the musician’s equivalent is, “What do you start with, music or words?” The answer is almost always, “I dunno, sometimes music, sometimes words, sometimes both.” With the rock opera, I’m trying my best to start with at the very least a title, and even that is sketchy. In the words of David Drederer, music is magic plain and simple, and he’s right. You never know how or when it’s going to hit. All this paragraph is really trying to say is this: The quick setup is essential, because I never know whether I’ll be sequencing, hammering, strumming or singing until about thirty seconds before I’m doing it.

So that’s my method. I just got used to convincing my mind to mull over the correct creative dilemma during that not-quite-dreaming state, and watched my creative output flourish. These days I save my nights for reading books and internet research, or sometimes sketching or design. I watch TV with my friend Matt one day a week, on his DVR. When my brain gets too tired for anything else I watch a movie. Preferably something with a lot of subtitles and flying knee-jabs. Occasionally I even get sunlight.

Whether this method seems brilliant to you or so wrong it makes your head spin, by all means leave your take in the comments.

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  • This is a brilliant realization. I think I do this unconsciously (but not like you!). I need to start doing more than feeding the dog and making breakfast in the morning.

  • You amaze me with your creativity..and the way you can actually put down in words HOW you make it all work…keep it up, I love reading it

  • Wow its really good to know that someone out there harneses the creative out put they have in their hypnagogic state. In recent years I’ve found that I always hear music I’ve never heard before as I’m going to sleep. Most often I hear strings or full onn orchestras playing epic stuff, but some times I hear eerie arcapello voices or groovy jazz. After reading this I’m now inspired to actually try and write down the music I hear.

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