by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television
Ever read something and say to yourself, “This just doesn’t work?” Or listen to a piece of music and go, “Oof I’m done.” What about an email that makes you shake your head with a “WTF!” Part of the problem is that you didn’t fall in love at first sight with the article and the author didn’t help you do so. Same with a piece of music. Because we read and listen to so much so quickly, authors and composers must ensure we fall in love with their work at first sight or we’ll move on.
Caveat: there are plenty of things that almost require that we take the time to fall in love with them. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, XTC’s Oranges and Lemons. At first, my fragile little mind could not comprehend the depth and richness that these works have to offer. Fortunately for me I’ve kept at them and have reaped the rewards.
Why Love at First Sight?
Yet there is a litany of “creative works,” for lack of a better term, that do require the audience to fall in love at first sight. Basically, I get one shot at grabbing and keeping your attention because you’re not going to come back for a second read or listen.
My articles on this Web site are a perfect example. If they don’t make sense or don’t give you an enjoyable experience from start to finish, you’re not going to be satisfied, and you probably won’t come back to read much else. And you’d give even less of a chance to an email or business document that’s nothing but a hot mess.
Same is true for the music I write for television. And I have two audiences that I have to grab: the producers of the show and the audience who watches. Producers constantly look for music for their shows. During their search, they want the music to grab them within the first few seconds, take them on the right emotional journey, and leave them with a final “umph.” If I don’t give them all of that from the outset, then they’ll move on to the next piece of music and it may not be mine.
So too for the audiences that watch the show. If I derail the scene because I don’t complement it with the right music, my cred as a composer goes out the window. But it’s not easy coming up with that drop dead gorgeous ensemble. So I’ve come up with several methods that help me take my creative works from meh to I-can’t-keep-my-eyes-off-you!
Try On Anything For Size
I’m a big believer in the three step creative process:
During the Create process anything goes, except editing. I usually have an outline or have some ideas swirling in my head so I don’t start from a blank page. That’s just too painful. Part of my article on procrastination talks about how to get past blank page obstructions.
I turn off my spell check and grammar-fixer-upper and start typing. If I’m writing music I start with whatever instrument sounds good on my keyboard and go. The key is not to edit the ideas. Get them down and see what happens, what evolves, what interconnects, what blossoms. There’s no point in cutting things if you don’t give them a chance to find their place in the work. They may in fact edit their own selves out.
Note, this is not the time to suss out how you’re going to make your creative work irresistible – you’re just laying out all the material you’re gong to work with and building the foundation. It’s during the Edit process where you have ample opportunity to dress it all up.
Editing is Where You Create That Great First Impression
Creative works are appealing when all of their elements and happy surprises just work right and the audience is truly satisfied from beginning to end. But how, as an author, can you get that “first-time” experience when you’re so close to the work? How do you recognize when it’s right especially when you never get to experience it for the first time?
Answer: you have to create it for yourself. There are two ways you can simulate the first-time experience: give in to your wandering eye and play hard to get.
Give In to Your Wandering Eye
Obviously, what we’re looking for is a fresh perspective. Sometimes it’s enough to merely work on something else for a short while to give yourself a little distance. You don’t, however, want to completely side track yourself and lose momentum.
If I’m writing an article or a business document, I do what I can on a section, then move on to another section. I’m still in the flow of the document, but I’ve pulled my head out of the one section that I’ve been churning on. When I come back to it, I’ve usually shifted perspective enough that I can see what’s working and what’s not.
When writing music, I often move over to an alternate version of the track I’m working on. This allows me to explore other possibilities that I chose not to pursue with the first version. It also keeps me in the general tone of the piece so I keep a similar flow going. Again, when I go back to the first version, I’ve created enough distance so I can do some better, more objective tweaking.
Typically I come back to edit a section with the hope that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by a few of my ideas and perhaps irked by a few others. This gives me the impetus to keep cleaning things up until I run out of things to edit. Then it’s time to move back to the other section or alternate version. Rinse. Repeat.
Play Hard to Get
Putting some real time and distance between you and your creative work is where the first-time magic really happens. That means walking away from the work and doing something else. Maybe even for a day or two. Life presents many distractions as we know. When we come back, we can be more objective with our warts.
During our editing process, we invest in all of our ideas and we often fall in love with them. We shuffle them around, rework them, cut, paste, and soak in a bath of creativity. The problem is that all that material we work with is very different from what we actually put on paper. We can read a sentence or listen to a musical passage and know what we mean to say because all of the ideas we had swirling around are still fresh in our heads. Our readers, however, are not privy to this swirl. They only get what we’ve put down.
When we’re editing, our real battle is to drop as many of our unedited notions about the creative work, so we can experience it for the “first” time as best we can. As an objective reader, we want to be a newbie going on the journey, so as we’re led down the path we know whether or not the work meets our expectations. We want to be satisfied. We want to go “ah, yes.” If our expectations are not met, if we say, “that didn’t make sense, I was really expecting to go elsewhere,” if we’re missing a vital piece of the argument, then we as the author have just found one of those spots that need editing and reworking.
Coming back after a day or so gives me this essential, newbie perspective:
- I don’t see the accessories that didn’t work.
- I’ve forgotten about the flotsam that didn’t make the cut.
- I’ve ditched the dead ends that I didn’t want to follow.
Now it’s almost like collaborating with myself because it’s all “new,” if familiar. I bring fresh ideas and perspective, I see how all the pieces should fit or if they should be cut, I have a better vision of where the creative work should go, and I can edit without hurting anyone’s feelings. I find that this is where things really fall into place because I can see the whole work for what it is, an ensemble of essential pieces.
Once I’ve come back to a creative work for the last time, and tweaked the last little bit, I then put on the final gloss and shine. That may mean spell checking a document. It may mean ensuring that none of the instruments in a mix fight with each other. But it’s no longer about tweaking because I’m confident all of the essential parts are in their right place. I do have further ideas on how to finalize a music mix that I’ll explore in a later article.
Will my audience fall in love with my work at first sight? I hope so. I find that if I stick to this method then I can go back months later to a creative work of mine and feel pretty satisfied. I usually nod my head and say, “That works. I buy it.”
How do you capture that fresh perspective? How are you objective when you edit your work? I’d love to know.
Gripe and Punishment
Gripe: People standing on the left side of an escalator.
Punishment: If you catch me standing on the left side of an escalator instead of walking, you may stand next to me and hum a Carpenters song for the whole length of the escalator to ensure it gets stuck in my head.
Double Punishment for inconveniencing a swath of busy commuters: You may hum “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Offensive AND sticky.
Just so we’re clear: Stand on the right side of an escalator and walk on the left side.
Stuart Ridgway composes original music for film and television. Get award-winning, original music for your film or video at Pyramid Digital Productions, Inc.