Name: Rob Burger
Occupation: Composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, music director
Current release: Rob Burger's Marching With Feathers is out via Western Vinyl.
If you enjoyed this interview with Rob Burger and would like to find out more, visit his official homepage. Keep up to speed with his work via Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
As an instrumentalist and composer of music without words, my impulse to create usually stems from a simple melody or a pulse or vibration that I feel or hear within myself.
Sources like dreams, art, politics, literature etc don’t really play into the inception of a musical idea, at least not on a conscious level. Art, literature, and film are often mediums that inspire me to go into my studio and create. The connection usually reveals itself to me after the fact.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
It’s not crucial but sometimes, I’ll have a concrete idea for the beginnings of a composition or an aesthetic I’m after, but because I’m an improvisor, often I will arrange the music as I’m recording a piece. In other words, my planning takes the form of a musical idea -- as that musical idea starts to take shape and build in my mind, I need to get it out of my head and recorded, so space is created for more layers.
There is a point in the production process, where the work seems to take on a life of its own, and I can start to visualize the final outcome, but it’s not until I’m further along in the writing and recording process.
Planning and chance are indistinguishable, in a sense, because I’m guiding it, but also being taken for a ride.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
My initial tools are often a piano or a keyboard with a computer. I’ll either sit down at the piano and sketch out a melody, or I’ll be at my computer and record an idea. If the idea I have feels inspiring, and I have the time, I’ll start expanding on it right away.
I’m not a big fan of demos and so usually there aren’t early versions. With my last album, I did have a few skeletal pieces that I revisited, and further developed, but more often I’m going for final right out of the gate.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I run every morning to get the day started. This has been part of my routine for 20 years now and it helps clear my mind.
I have little kids so coffee is crucial in the morning although I don’t drink it all day long. My partner has a morning meditation routine, and she has inspired me to read some spiritual text or a poem before the day gets underway. I know I’d benefit from journaling in the morning, but establishing that as a habit is a slow burn.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It all depends on the day.
I tend to start with an improvisational idea on piano, or I might have a concept that I want to get down. Once there is a foundation in place, and the initial statement feels substantial enough, the next steps will start to flow and create new inspiration as I work.
Writing isn’t difficult for me. Whether or not I like the writing; whether or not I think I’m saying something I didn’t say yesterday … that’s another story.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Usually a compositional sketch or idea is solidified and then recorded. This can be in the form of an improvisation, or a melody that I’m hearing / imagining. I’ll then record the idea, often on piano, but sometimes it can start with a rhythm or synthesizer pattern. Once that is documented on my computer, I will start to add instrumentation to support what’s there.
Things unfold the way a painting may take form. I’ll add shades of sound and colors to the sources that are currently there. I’ll continue to build upon the composition until I feel the statement is clear. I like when things are sonically rich but I also am a minimalist and am one to add only what’s needed. This is how I tend to operate as a performer and instrumentalist supporting others work as well.
I think of myself as a sound sculptor … someone for whom orchestrating music spontaneously comes naturally. When it comes to my own compositions however, I like to make sure I have the foundation of a strong melody before jumping into the arranging and production process.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Certain sounds or instruments that I will add to a piece of music will be treated differently from one another and the approach to say a guitar vs a flute is going to give completely different results. That said, it’s highly possible they will both work in very different ways … It’s a matter of picking and choosing colors and textures that agree with me.
The downside of working in isolation, is that it is difficult to get an outside perspective on what’s working and what’s not. These are the reasons I love collaboration as well. There’s definitely a feeling often of … am I walking the dog, or is the dog walking me?
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I love it when the writing takes me in a different direction than I expect to go. Having a new perspective, or an aha moment in the midst of a production is so uplifting and gives me a better understanding of myself and where I come from.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think so. But I could probably answer that question more easily through music!
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Every piece is different for me. So for instance I’m going to treat a solo piano performance far differently than a produced song that requires multiple instruments with 20 tracks of audio.
For something that is simple, it really becomes about the performance. Once I feel the performance is there and it’s compelling, I can declare it being done.
With something that’s more involved, it’s usually about asking myself, whether or not the track needs yet another color, or an event needs to happen in order to keep a listener engaged. I’ve gotten better at letting something go and moving on.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
I would say 50% of the work I do for my solo recordings is performance based, and the other 50% is about refining the mix, getting the arrangement correct, getting the sequence right.
Because the music is instrumental, it’s important to me that the experience be inviting for the listener, and so I devote a lot of time to the orchestration of things … It’s almost like sound design collage work. There are a lot of subtle sonic shifts that happen within the music. All of it is performed in real time and there is no digital trickery or loops, so it can be time consuming getting everything to fit together properly.
I do take breaks from each piece during this process and revisit them over time until they feel complete.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Every project is different. The most important aspect of a production is the composition itself. The next most important is in the performance.
That said, I’m very interested in sound and how things are shaped sonically. I’m involved in every aspect of the production. In my records, I place a lot of emphasis on mastering. I’m conceptualizing the mastering process as it’s being made.
The sequence is crucial, as I want to take my listeners on a journey. I try my best to listen to other artists’ records start to finish - not get sucked into this shuffle business because, I too, enjoy being taken on a journey.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yes. Being in the creative work process is the most rewarding part of my job. With this album, it’s been difficult because of manufacturing delays. There was a big gap in finishing the album and scheduling a release date so I was in a state of wondering whether or not I would be better off waiting or starting a new project. That can muddy up my creative process and timeline.
The emptiness can be scary too … have I said it all? I wonder. Is there more? Of course, there is always more, but still the thought occurs.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
It’s funny but I really do think everyone’s creativity is reflected in many of the things that transpire throughout the day.
Cooking, making a cup of coffee, mixing a fine beverage, how you speak to people on the phone … all of theses things require a sense of timing, grace and patience … and also a respect to the tools one is working with to achieve their vision. I speak a few other languages decently well, I like to think. I make great pasta; my kids think I do funny impersonations; my partner of 21 years still enjoys my back rubs.
But music is my best message vehicle for sure. It’s a medium through which I can safely share all the parts of myself and no one will call me late for dinner.