My journey of composition

by on Monday, 31 December 2012 5080 hits Comments
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Bust of Becquer. Photo by Ana Rey


¿Qué es poesía? -dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía... eres tú.

These four simple lines are considered by many people to be some of the most famous and beautiful in the history of Spanish literature. Written by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, a Romantic poet of 19th century Spain, they roughly translate as:

What is poetry?-you ask as you
fix your blue gaze on mine.
What is poetry? You are asking me? you.

When it comes to composition, often the simplest solution is the most elegant. I started writing poetry and songs around the age of 15, and, for some reason, my obsession was to make things different, more complicated, to create something completely unique. I was young at the time, and didn't realise just how arrogant a position this was: How could I possibly believe that this fifteen-year-old, teenage me could create something utterly unseen before in the long history of Spanish language literature and music? Still I persevered, attempting to find sheer originality and constantly getting frustrated at the difficulty of conveying similar emotions in different words or over the fact that the original melody that I had just spent hours crafting sounded exactly the same as those of 700 other songs that had come before it.

After a few years of fruitless fruition, I went to university, leaving the country where I had grown up for my second home, England. I continued to write, drawing inspiration from the new surroundings and experiences that I was going through. I still felt a little vexed at times though; why could I never be satisfied with any of my creations? Was I too much of a perfectionist, demanding too much of myself? As I learned more, I grew to understand that it is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. When those before you have done a great job of conveying something or creating a nice chord progression in a simple way, there are always going to be accidental similarities. Space for originality is limited, particularly in the world of popular music where convention reduces the amount of viable options when selecting themes or melodies. So, one night, after spending a lovely evening with a girl, I sat down to write. And inspiration came. No longer was I worried about whether the song was perfect, original, or good enough. I just set out to convey what I wanted to convey, by any means possible. And the means that came to mind were the words of a long gone 19th century hopeless romantic, Bécquer.

Inspired by his line "poetry is you", which I included in the song, I wrote of longing, of first love, of anguish. None of these themes are original, ground-breaking or unique, but the song was honest and heartfelt, and for once I felt completely satisfied when I finished. Even my friends liked it and claimed that it was different from the other songs I had done before.

A few years down the line, I am now quite a bit older (and hopefully wiser) than my eighteen-year-old self. It's surprising and comforting in a way to see how little things change. I used to get stuck with the melody of my Spanish songs; now I hit a mental block with the lyrics of my Chinese ones. Are they too simple? Will they sound like a foreigner wrote them? Am I using enough metaphors? I find many of my problems appear when I think about how my audience will react to my lyrics. I am terrified of sounding simple and foreign. My style of writing in Spanish was direct and to the point, but that style is rarely found in Chinese popular music, where everything tends to be lyrical and poetic to the maximum extent.

What, then, to do? From a logical stance I know I should try to ignore the fear of unworthiness, for it leads to over-complexity and perfectionism, and I've been there; it's not really that fun, and it means abandoning otherwise good projects and letting them fall into disrepair or even oblivion. On the other hand, the cultural aspect of it makes it very challenging, and, much to my surprise I find myself actually enjoying spending hours on end searching up Chinese synonyms until I find one that rhymes, much like finding the right piece to complete a puzzle.

At the end, it still comes down to not overcomplicating things I suppose. The first Chinese song I ever wrote, with it's painfully simplistic lyrics even by Western standards, is still the most popular on youtube. As I continue to work on new projects, I am always reminded of those words by Becquer: "Poesía... eres tú". So simple, so elegant, so obvious that you can't believe someone didn't write them before. Maybe there is more to those words that meets the eye; maybe, poetry is in all of us, and if we just stop trying to change ourselves in order to conform to the way that, we assume, others want us to be, it is possible we might be surprised with the simple yet beautiful results.


Happy New Year everyone!

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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