the fine art

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

The best compliment a writer receives is praise for originality; that a song has his or her personal stamp on it, that only they could have written it. Of course, originality is what happens when something new arises out of what's already been done, so the compliment extends to the writer's influences as well. I'm reminded of James Mather's remarks from his introduction to Alec Wilder's book, American Popular Song: "It is the unconscious role of the innovator to conserve in his creative reflexes both past and contemporary innovation while moving his own work in new directions. He assimilates what is fresh and stimulating, and he then explores his own intuitive sense of the further possibilities in the forms and devices of others."

The unconscious role; meaning that invisible storehouse of sounds, colors, forms, and images each writer has accumulated by observation and obsession. The emphasis we give to one thing over another; just the right melody note for that word, our preference for certain word-play, our hesitancy until the proper form reveals itself- these are the most personal aspects of our work. Conversely, we have learned that the conscious intention of sounding original leads to exaggeration- the opposite of sincerity, and an amateur move with a capital "A". Mather again: "...On the other hand, the hack songwriter assimilates nothing; he stays on the surface of change, deliberately imitating innovation. His contribution is the cliche'."

It's important to remember that the most particular choices are the most universal ones. Leonard Cohen had this to say: "You don't really want to say "the tree"- you want to say "the Sycamore"; "watching Capt. Kangaroo" not "TV". Details delight us because we can share a life then." How many times have we heard "the lake" in songs lately? "The lake"- what lake? Anyone could have written that! I want to know the name or a description of your lake, so I can make it some imagined version of my own.

A truly authentic voice identifies the writer like his or her fingerprints. Who else but Gary Burr could have written: "..she'd never leave that one/ So she can't be really gone."; the elegance of leave/one echoed in be/gone. And from the same song: "..she must intend to come back/ When I've seen the error of my ways."; only Gary can write poetry that sings this well. Or Skip Ewing's: "..I'll still be waiting for you/ On the coast of Colorado.", and "..if a man can live on love alone."; only he needed to sing those rolling vowels there as if his life depended on it. Think of the grown-up intellectual quirkiness of Bobby Braddock's "People Are Crazy", "I'd Rather Have What We Had"; the harmonic signature of Hugh Prestwood in songs like "That's That", "The Song Remembers When", and "Departure"; the across-the-bar musical phrasing of Jeffery Steele. All different. All original.

These personal choices and the confidence to choose presupposes creative freedom, and this is rarely the case in the current music industry's standardization of popular songs. So many we hear these days are im-personal "dentist office art"- songs anyone could have written. The writer is not present in her song at all. It's language as information. And when that happens, the language is dying. Maybe because so many writers' experience with the language (young writers especially) has been with newspapers, computers, and text-ing, they are used to seeing language function this way.

We are lucky indeed to find a co-writer or two who allow us to express our individuality, and insist upon our compulsions without being made to feel overly self-conscious. Producing a recognizable "style" when both writers are contributing lyric and musical ideas is rare. Co-writing may not be the best environment for fostering an individual voice for many, unless the roles are clearly marked between composer and lyricist; think Bacharach and David, John and Taupin, the Gershwins. The Bergmans are unique in that they have managed to craft "one voice" as two lyricists working together, and there are teams of two or more regular writing/producing partners in the Pop music world who are doing some defining work.

Cultivating An Authentic Voice:
* Journaling
* Object Writing (see Pat Pattison)
* Read and extract passages that "light your hair on fire."
* Read poetry everyday.
* Appropriate (steal) from the best- blend and refashion.
* Catalogue your obsessions; your preferences for alliteration, assonance (words for the sake of their sounds), perfect and near rhyme, chord changes, figurative language of all kind.
* Say "no" to cliche' and over-worn images and ideas; resistance leads to discovery, exceed your original impulses.
* "Discover" the song in the process of writing.
* Begin the moment you surprise yourself- it's your imagination speaking; a "fortunate confusion."
* Insert a foreign detail; one right road usually leads to another.
* Practice your instrument to learn/discover new chords, new chord voicing, new progressions.
* Co-write most often with a partner who allows you to be you. Self-consciousness is the very opposite of an act of creation.
* Walk and listen.
* Study Zen.
* Say something you can't quite support yet, and watch where it leads; knowing can be a limiting thing.
* Be wary of words, melodic and harmonic choices that haven't been found by the song.
* Avoid details that have actually happened for ones that arise out of the imperatives of the song. The imagination has little chance in the face of facts.
* The most particular facts are the most universal ones.
* Your words used your way will generate your meanings.
* Focus on the play rather than the value of the words.
* Innovate within convention.

"For last year's words belong to last year's language,"
"And next year's words await another voice.
- T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"

"It takes a long time to sound like yourself."
- Miles Davis

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