Writer's vertigo and my piano quintet

14 Dec 2018

What is writer's block? How does a composer unbind himself from it?

RPS Composer Laurence Osborn talks about the endless possibilities in composition, how children's drawings inspired his prize commission 'Me and 4 Ponys' and how they helped him overcome 'writer's vertigo'.

Two weeks before the deadline of my RPS commission, Me and 4 Ponys for Piano Quintet, I sat at the piano and played the same chord over and over again for three hours straight. The chord itself wasn’t even that special - a four-note combination spanning a minor ninth - but the issue was that I had no idea what could possibly come after it. Every avenue the chord led me down ended in music that sounded bad. It was as if the decisions I’d made up to that point had irrevocably corrupted all twelve notes of the chromatic set, and all of their possible combinations, and all music, and nothing was ever going to be good again. This was a particularly distressing afternoon because the day before, in a moment of masochistic impulsivity, I had thrown half of an entire movement in the bin. Eventually, I stood up and gave in to that sad, familiar traction beam which drags frustrated freelancers from their work, to their phone, and then to the pub.

I suffer from writer’s block frequently. If I’m lucky, it only appears once a week. If I’m unlucky, it can be so persistent that, once I have reached the end of writing a piece, it feels as if the piece has scribbled itself down while I’ve been rolling cigarettes and aimlessly scrolling through Twitter. Despite what the term ‘writer’s block’ suggests, my inertia doesn’t stem from an inability to come up with a musical idea; I can do that with relative ease, in fact. Writer’s block, in my case, is triggered by a paralysing fear that emerges once I’ve found the first idea.

When the first idea drips into my mind, I find myself staring into a kaleidoscope of endless possible transformations and combinations, meanings and contexts. Once I have the courage to reach for a second idea, it reacts with the first, and before my eyes blooms another, even larger, galaxy of possibilities. I am stuck, impotently clinging to my two related ideas, wondering whether to risk reaching for a third, or let go of the first, or throw the second back into the vortex and see whether the first can carry me somewhere else. Each step forward reveals a new multiplicity of potential ideas. The further you travel, the greater the risk is of getting lost in an ever-expanding universe of ‘mights’ and ‘coulds’. The term ‘writer’s block’ suggests an impasse, a vanishing of possibility. In my experience, however, not being able to write, or better, fear of writing, takes hold when I’m faced with the sheer scale of the possible. In my case - perhaps in others’ too - ‘writer’s block’ should be renamed ‘writer’s vertigo’.

For the commission, Me and 4 Ponys, my writer’s vertigo was exacerbated by the fact I was writing for piano quintet, a medium with an enormous amount of cultural baggage. There is an upper-class politeness embedded in all established chamber-music forms, but the piano quintet reflects this attitude most pertinently. It’s a form which resurrects the ghosts of wealthy amateurs playing in nineteenth-century parlours. Beneath the sepia tones of bowed and hammered strings, you can almost hear the rustling of crinolines. When I began sketching Me and 4 Ponys, I decided to use a conceptual framework which could take me as far as possible from received ideas of ‘the piano quintet’. And so, Me and 4 Ponys turned out to be about drawings by children.

When children draw, they are unconcerned with consequence or correction. Each line is drawn fearlessly, and the first mark on paper is always part of the final piece. Form, scale, and subject change constantly throughout the creative process, at the whim and intuition of the artist. The art itself exhibits a strange mixture of confidence and vulnerability. The music in Me and 4 Ponys is inspired by these ideas in the way it evokes children’s scribbles, blobs of paint, and crudely drawn figures. To me, drawings by children represent the creative freedom that we composers inevitably start to lose sight of when we become ‘professional’. Growing into adults, our work ceases to exist for and of itself. It becomes a part of our identity instead: the act of creation becomes an act of building oneself; the blank page a breeding ground for doubt and paranoia. To compose, you have to try to wipe these feelings from your mind and return to the state of ‘creating for the sake of creating’, which is how children approach their drawing. Otherwise, you will find yourself staring once again into a galaxy of endless possibilities.

To fight against ‘writer’s vertigo’, I try hard to forget that I am writing a piece altogether. Instead, I reduce one feature in a passage until I am left with something rudimentary: a series of pitches or chords, or a short rhythmic invention, for example. Then, I use the manuscript paper as a sandbox and spend the afternoon playing around with this little scrap of material, changing its length and shape, inverting and rotating it, setting it within different generic contexts, and so on. There, away from the commanding glare of the piece, I am free to explore my material and its possibilities without consequence, before I drip-feed the results back into the score. On other occasions, I take a chunk of music I’m not happy with, and ‘give it a bath’: I copy out only the harmonic rhythm and cleanse the music of instrumentation, gesture and timbre. This makes it easier for me to transform longer stretches of music that would have otherwise felt impenetrable. If I’m feeling a bit reckless, I make a more impulsive decision, the effects of which are irreversible, and force myself to live with it. This might entail rupturing the structure, switching-up the vocabulary, or even physically cutting up and re-disposing existing passages of music. Contaminating the gene pool of a piece in this way gives me licence to leave my existing tangle of possibilities to go in search of new ones.

All these strategies allow for a return to the fundamental joy of making, the single-minded geekery that compels us to reach for felt tips and wax crayons as children, and later, to pencils and manuscript paper as composers. Knowing I can access this state of mind enables me to write in spite of my fears, doubts and distractions. My piece, Me and 4 Ponys is therefore as much about how adults make art, as it is about the way children do.


Laurence Osborn received the RPS Composition Prize in 2017. His prize commission 'Me and 4 Ponys' received its world premiere at Music in the Round, Sheffield on 30 November and a second performance on 1 December. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Composition at Kings College London, supervised by Sir George Benjamin, and previously studied at Hertford College, Oxford, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

You can follow him on Twitter @LaurenceOsborn and read more about his work on his website.