The Auteur and LISTENING to Music

When was the last time I simply listened to music–without doing anything else?
I’ve been really enjoying Mark Salomon’s Never Was podcast. Last week featured Copeland frontman Aaron Marsh, and he talked about when he was young, his friends would call and ask what he was doing, and he would reply, “Listening to music.”
Just—“listening to music.”
When did that stop for us? Maybe it never stopped for you. I hope that’s the case. I may say “I’m reading.” Or, “I’m watching a movie.” But how difficult is it to just close my eyes and focus on a record for its own sake? Not driving and listening, not making dinner and listening, not bathing the kids and listening, not working out and listening but just…simply encountering the work. It’s actually my dream for people to encounter my work that way. On a great hi-fi system or with headphones—I’ll come to your house and give your dog a swirly if you listen to my records on those infernal laptop speakers. I’m serious. They call me “The Wet Bandit”.
But you know me–I appreciate the auteur. I love how David Lynch sent specific projection instructions to cinemas.
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So the other morning, I awoke naturally, and my kids were gone, the wife snoozing blissfully beside me, and I listened to the incomparable Songs of Pain and Leisure by TW Walsh. There’s another guy with the “auteur” touch–his fingers are apparent on any project he writes, co-writes, mixes, or masters.
Please love yourself this week and actively listen to music, at least one time this week. Who’s with me? Hey, why not start with my latest album. Haven’t heard it? It’s right here:

Listening: TW Walsh Songs of Pain and Leisure
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Wonder-Working Power

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. – Graham Greene
“MAGNETS! How do they work?!”, or so goes the notorious Insane Clown Posse track, Miracles. Insane Clown Posse was required listening among the cool kids in ’95, when I was in seventh grade (“Sevvies Suck!). It was Michigan, and The I.P.C. was still a budding regional act, with all of the punk rock accouterments found attractive to middle schoolers. Confrontational and striking visual image, antagonistic to parents, anti-establishment (other than a Faygo pop endorsement, so not anti-corporation, I guess?) chased with edgy, albeit–dumb, lyrics. I was certainly not cool, and I was not into IPC. But these same kids got me into The Wu-Tang Clan in high school, and for that, I am definitely grateful.
So I.P.C. released a song a couple years back lauding the wonder of this cosmos we find ourselves in, but not understanding that the scientific method has let us understand a little bit of the world around us. Hence, magnetism. Genetics. Rainbows. SNL parodied IPC’s video, but do we even need a parody?
So seventh grade science class. Biology, methinks? Formaldehyde, Drakkar Noir and bad decisions. My teacher was Mr. Sommers, in retrospect a marvelous, caring, and patient teacher. It was also light years before bald men hadn’t yet realized they should buzz all that mess still left over their ears. We were hellions hopped up on pop tarts and sex hormones, pounding our chests like silverbacks. And and the girls were no better, paper wasps, applying bricked layers of lip gloss on their bottom lip. It was Monday: dissection day. (Sorry PETA! Stop reading here! It gets worse! Rated “R” for “Reprehensible”!) We had been given frogs in teams of four, and were given scalpels, tweezers and these scissors that had vicious looking pointy ends. That day ended with me decapitating the frog and putting the severed head on my scissors so I could manually open and close it’s mouth by maneuvering the scissors. I used the sad animal as rude totem of my nascent sexuality, attempting to flirt(?) with the girl behind me, cackling and forcing her to look at the sad amphibian in its dead, dead, eyes.

“Hey ladies.”

I was watching a vid on music compositional techniques on The YouTube and made the mistake of scrolling down to the comments. Sigh. I just really can’t seem to help myself. Someone wrote “You cannot analyze creativity”. The “Magical Mysteries” song popped into my head. The writer’s tone was simultaneously insolent and wizened, doting sage words as some sort of svengali troller, it surprised me that it was one of the most upvoted comments. I resisted the urge to comment back, but the thought has plagued me for weeks. You can analyze and didactically communicate creativity. It’s what I do for a full-time job. Indeed, there has been hundreds of years of musicology, and we do know how and why music works. From the interaction between psychoacoustics and brain chemistry. One of my favorite artists and arrangers, Owen Pallett has written some enjoyable deconstructions of recent pop hits over at Slate.
Learning music theory, or art history, or neurobiology doesn’t suck out the magic out. but you do tend to have to kill the frog in order to dissect it.
Watching: The Americans, S2

Every Song a Painting

I’ve talked about self-imposed (or external) artistic restrictions as process before, and see it as one of the best things you can do for your creative process. We creators have a difficult time with freedom, especially with the amount of flexibility given in digital audio workstations and the irony of Fredkin’s Paradox.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.  — Stravinsky

To the point of style and stricture, I’ve been really turned on to Tony Zhou’s “Every Frame a Painting” video essays. My favorite one so far is the one on David Fincher’s shots. Last night we devoted a date night to a Japanese-fusion burger bar and Fincher’s latest effort, Gone Girl, and it was too hard to not be delighted in his framing.

“They know you can do anything, so the question is—‘What don’t you do?’” — Fincher

Restrictions As Style

In the age of AutoTune, “magical” digital audio editing, the “Photoshopping” of audio, what don’t you do in your songwriting and production?

Zhou lists four distinctive limitations Fincher self-imposes:

  1. He doesn’t do handheld (he does but extremely limited 1-3 shots per film). And further, he uses it for contrast. He’ll have another shot on a tripod for contrast, showing a character in a power position.
    1. For application in songwriting, is there something you won’t do? It could be play in major keys. It could be not writing in 4/4. I try to never use the word “love”.
  2. Humans don’t seem to be operating the camera; instead, it looks like the viewer is looking through the eyes of an impersonal omniscience.
    1. Our difficult job is to make songs sound familiar, yet new. Our songs should have elements of excitement, and pushing forward the art form, yet at the same time feel like they’ve always been in the world.
  3. Rare camera close-ups. When it happens, they end up having more power because they’re normally withheld.
    A.  Close-ups are the parallel of dynamic down-shifts in arrangement. When the instrumentation dramatically minimizes, most things cut out but the vocal for dramatic effect. It has to have the contrast of fuller arrangement for it to really work.
  4. Directing in as wide an angle as possible. Fincher tries to let normalcy dominate his scenes. The perfect execution of banal. Sometimes flashiest isn’t the best.
    1. If you have a strong melody, captivating lyric, and interesting harmonic content, it’s probably a good song, and the production won’t have to make up for it.

      Watch the rest of the video for the way Zhou breaks down a simple dialogue scene for the amount of packed drama. In any case, decide that you’re the type of artist to commit to your discipline the way Isaac Asimov records in a recently-unearthed essay on creativity,

“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)”

Reading“Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence A friend sent me an essay he wrote; love the deconstruction of the modernist’s malaise-driven narrative.

Playing: Batman Arkham City (replay)

Watching: Gone Girl – she read the book; I didn’t. Stellar performances, enjoyed Fincher, as usual.

Listening: Ariana Grande, My Everything – as a (guilty-pleasured?) fan of Max Martin’s songwriting, I can’t not check out everything he’s doing.