The Eureka Moment

written by Adam Zolty
GLFCAM Dana Lyon Fellow, Cycle 8

It is safe to say that most composers, writers, artists, or inventors, have experienced the dreaded “writers’ block.” It may creep up at any moment during the creative process, halting projects in the making. I too have experienced a fair share of writers’ blocks, but one; during the year of 2017, was by far the most severe one I had ever experienced.

I spent hours at a time at my desk pondering possible ideas, I searched old sketchbooks, listened to as many works of music as I could, studied the scores I never read from my bookshelf, spent time in my university music library, went to concerts, went on long walks, drew nonsensical diagrams on staff paper, but nothing had stirred my imagination.

Much time had passed and I was already well through second semester of university. Each week I was left with the stressful burden to show up to my composition lessons with at least something that I could show and talk about. I ended up making arrangements of prior works I had written for the piano and other solo instruments. It was this move that helped me get through the rest of my university year. To me, this was no ordinary writers’ block, it seemed to emanate from much deeper within.

I felt like I had exhausted my creativity. If I did come up with an idea, I would immediately dismiss it over the thought of it lacking developmental potential, like I done something similar before, it being too clichéd, or thinking that I could do better. Ideas that made it through this criticizing stage were also left unfinished because I was unsatisfied by the developmental trajectories I took them. In all, I felt I was wearing myself out through being overly self-critical. I wanted to write music I believed represented improvements towards my compositional skills, and I felt like the experiences I had gained during my past years of lessons, workshops, and compositions, made it even harder for me to develop new and engaging ideas. A constant thought which ran though my head was: “I should avoid doing X because that would result in Y,” and this was wearing me out. 

Summer soon arrived and I decided to take a break from composing for a while, after which my frustrations began to clear. But the thought of how I could overcome this block still frequently visited my mind.

One day, my mother asked me to come substitute for her pianist at her ballet studio. I gladly agreed. I usually have a fun time improvising new pieces for her classes. My mother would gesture and count the time signature she required, and I would continue with a new piece on the piano. This was one of the things I used to do since the very beginning, before I even started to learn to read and write music. It came naturally to me, and there had always been this youthful thrill I would gain from it.

As I played for my mother’s class, I became so enamoured with the freedom I had. In an improvisatory situation like this, everything goes, each musical event having its own unique place within the piece. I felt like I was able to experiment again without criticizing myself, and just letting my fingers and mind do the talking. It was also so wonderful to see the dancers as I played. I felt like I was able to respond to their movements in an interpretive call-and-response way, sometimes even adding humour into the mix, eventually culminating into this game where I would try to invoke a laugh or grin from a dancer through my playing.

Then that eureka moment hit me; an epiphany that altered my compositional focus, and inspired a new series of pieces which I still continue to this day. I realised the potential of my piano improvisations. They were not far off from being pieces in of themselves, and this encouraged me to treat my compositions with the same positive and carefree attitude I gave to improvising. This realization suddenly energised my pieces with a new found freshness that I so desperately searched for when I had my block. I now understand that I don’t have to be so critical on myself to produce new pieces, because I know that if I keep to my improvisatory and carefree instincts, I will have no trouble producing music I feel is unique and engaging.

Lastly and most importantly was my realisation that motion; whether physical or abstract, had a great influence over my conceptualization of music. My whole life I have been exposed to dancers, and this had contributed to a unique motion sensitive perspective of music which I did not know I had.  

When I went home that day, I perused through all of my prior scores, remembering the creative processes in which I took to write them. I realised I was not far off from this perspective all along, and that I can harness my sensitivity to motion even more for my future compositions.  I can confidently say that: “when I see motion, I hear music.”   

I feel I owe a lot to this creative block. Even though I found it frustrating at the time, it really helped me understand the greater depths of my artistic self, where I pull inspiration from, and how I identify myself as a composer. I like to think of my compositions as gestural, carefree, and true to human nature, alluding to physical or abstract motion, which I use as a process to inspire, create, and guide my compositions. My piece for Cycle 8 of GLFCAM is very much representative of this unique style which I hope to push to greater levels of sophistication. My trip to this academy has been the perfect place for me to experiment, trying new things that I would not normally write, or, would not normally think of writing. My performers Leo Eguchi, and Haruka Fujii, in addition to Sasha Callahan and Chris Froh, have been incredibly passionate and helpful throughout the workshop, giving me great writing tips and inspirational sounds to work with. Gabriela is a remarkable friend and mentor, and always has a special way of getting the most out of my music. I am forever grateful to know her. 

Just like the break I took during the time of my creative block, being in the peaceful town of Boonville, CA was one of the greatest escapes I took. I felt like I had left my stresses behind me, coming with open ears and an open mind. I met so many talented and inspiring composers in my cycle. There was so much stylistic diversity that I think everyone benefitted from each other’s company, not only musically but also personally; sharing similar experiences.  On that note, I am sure we can all (in our own ways) understand how writer’s blocks, though undesirable, can be beneficial to the creative process, representing an important part in the life of being an artist.


Adam has received many performances of his work by esteemed Canadian ensembles and performers including NU:BC ensemble, Turning Point Ensemble, and Phoenix Chamber Choir. Learn more on Adam’s bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank