Rube Goldberg Songwriting


As I’ve written about many times before, I like the idea of creative systems.
I think I first picked the idea up on my radar from Brian Eno and his work with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies card deck, and he’s spoken about the subject at length in his published journal A Year With Swollen Appendices. The late poetry professor Richard Hugo speaks about a this phenomenon in his essays on creative writing, The Triggering Town. For a poetry final exam, he gave his students a poem project with an insane amount of restrictions, and then says that, without fail,
Too many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say–now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will write their best poem of the term. It works, and I’ve seen it work again and again. While the student is concentrating on the problems of the exercise, the real problems go away fro a moment simply because they are ignored, and with the real problems gone the poet is free to say what he never expected and always wanted to say (pg. 31).
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This week, I also gave my students an assignment with an hearty number of restrictions. The idea is to put your inspiration through the system of your craft, rolling around the creative restrictions. Think of a Rube Goldberg Device (funny name, serious sandwich). I first saw one when I was a young lad on the opening to a moralistic show about a boy with a cartoon friend only he could see.


The assignment: Choose one of Kyle Thompson’s photos from his online gallery and stare at it–generating a large amount of unconscious inspiration. Start with your gut feeling and describe the emotion you are feeling. Keep the emotional content heightened for your chorus. Maybe take out another piece of paper and free-write words and other images evoked by the photo. Form: Must follow this order:
V1
V2
C
V3
C
1/2 VERSE
C2
Special instructions -Must include an instance of contrary motion between the melody moving against the opposite direction of the harmony. (i.e. There She Goes, by The La’s)
Must also include an internal rhyme in the penultimate chorus line, leading to the final title line. Ex. You thought it was fine/to take what was mine
But now you’re just — killing time

I liked this series NPR did called Music Project Song where they’d bring in songwriters—sometimes individually (as in the case with The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt), sometimes a team (Moby + Kelli Scarr), and sometimes a couple that have never even met before (Chris Walla (ex-Death Cab) and Jawbox’s J. Robbins). They’d let them choose from a series of pictures and a series of words, and then write an record the song in two days. The stuff of thrills.




Reading: The Voice of the Heart – Chip Dodd
Listening: Fugazi – The Argument
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