Composer Warren Burt: Despite the heroism, I’d rather just be a cultural worker

Australia-based composer of American birth Warren Burt (b. 1949) composes in a wide variety of new music styles, ranging from acoustic, electroacoustic, text-based music and sound art installations. The composer often employs elements of improvisation, humor, live interaction, micro-tonality and lo-fi electronic techniques into his music. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė has inquired Warren Burt about his compositional process – it’s structure and meaning.

What are your thoughts about the structuring of the creative process?

Normally that’s pretty accurate, but there are times when a piece just happens and comes out, fully formed. Sometimes those are really good pieces, at others, oh well…

I think there are as many approaches to the creative process as there are creative people. And in fact, in the case of some people, there are as many approaches to the creative process as there are pieces that they’ve written. This latter option seems to be the most interesting to me.

What are your thoughts about this quote: “Works of art have been compared to icebergs: what is visible is but a small part of the whole. An artwork might seem to exist in splendid isolation, but that impression is misleading. Cultural products inevitably arise from a context, a submerged landscape that is often not easily accessible”?

Context is everything. Except when you try to avoid it. Then it sneaks in and affects everything, anyway. Another viewpoint would be that everything is political, except those things we want to be apolitical, which is itself a political position. Top of the iceberg: the work itself. The bottom: the economic superstructure within which a composer exists.

Do you have certain patterns, structures when it comes to your creative process?

I do tend to do more creative work or finish pieces, during the full moon. Don’t know why that is, but I’ve noticed it. Otherwise, when I get on a commuter train, with a laptop or a tablet computer, usually I can turn on the creative juices to take advantage of an hour of uninterrupted time.

What is the most fun and the most boring part of the compositional process?

Most fun: Learning about the capabilities of new software etc. Most boring: Learning about the capabilities of new software, etc. Most satisfying: Getting the time to sit back, uninterrupted, and listen to a piece all the way through and deciding, “yes, that one works.” Whatever “works” might mean on that particular day.

Define inspiration – does it exist?

Coming up with ideas exists all the time. Like any other muscle, you can develop it with practice.

How do you usually create a new idea of a piece?

I find some new ability in the software I’m examining. Or notice a new way of structuring some element of music. Or thinking, I wonder what would happen if I did X?

What does the process of forming an idea look like?

I’ll be smart-arsed here and say, you’d have to look at the fMRI of my brain to get a visual representation of an idea in motion.

How do you transform the abstract idea into the material – sketch, notes?

Start messing around with the software and see if I can structure things so that I can hear the results of the structural ideas I’ve come up with.

What form do your notes and sketches take?

Lots of post-it notes that get thrown away. Also, multiple version of patches in progress on software-driven pieces. I sketch so it will help me to easier start working on the piece.

What do you do to get into your creative zone?

Finish breakfast. Finish up a bunch of meaningless bureaucracy so I can have a clear mind. And get on public transport to have uninterrupted time.

What does the initial process of music-making looks like in your creative process?

We’re talking here about hazy thoughts floating in the soup of the brain, one of which happens to rub against another and something sticks – like a carrot fragment getting lodged in a noodle. Then the carrot-noodle encounters a piece of celery, which gets entangled with a bit of artichoke, and then all of it gets coated in pepper and spices which are floating in the broth. Something like that. Or answering a question like this sends me off into a culinary fantasy. Why did the trying to visualize thought lead me into fantasizing about ingredients in soup? Maybe Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” would have a good answer for that. Something like “the turtle is chewing the Snickers bar.”

When do you decide that the preparation (pre-composition) period is over and now you will start to actually compose?

If I have a bunch of plans formulated, and they still excite me, then when all the interruptions are dealt with, to work at once? Or sometimes, when working with analog or virtual analog synths, separating those stages is not so easy. And while one is working on a piece, suddenly a function on a particular module will pop into my head, and I realize I have to do that thing that just popped up in my head.

Please describe your state of mind when you are creating something.

Absorbed, or else nervously anticipating the next interruption.

How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?

David Dunlap in Iowa says “It’s always finished.” That doesn’t mean it can’t be worked on some more.

Do you critique your own work? Explain.

If I get time, I try to sit back and listen and hear what might “work” and what might not. Again, “work” is highly subjective and can change from day to day.

Do you identify with your creative product? Explain.

I try to treat the pieces, once made, as responsible adults who can make their own way in the world. If someone doesn’t like a piece of mine, that doesn’t mean they don’t like me. Similarly, if someone likes a piece of mine, that doesn’t mean that they like me. (Example, Richard Wagner – love the music, despise the guy.)

Thank you for the conversation!

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