November 29, 2009

Tiny Crimes

From Mike Nichols (in bold) interviewing Elaine May:
We’re behaving like hypnotized people, but we’re somnambulant. I hope we can wake each other up. But please, one at a time. There’s so many things, "Your call is important to us"—how do you know who’s calling? It’s the goddamn generalities that make for those tapes on phones and annoying e-mails from a group. The individual—there’s not enough money in the individual. And we have to—person to person—fight for it a little bit.

Let me ask you something. To simply actually stop. I’m just taking this "Your call is important to us" thing as an example because, having visited a large corporation, some executive is getting a $100 million a year and saving money not giving some woman a job for $30,000 a year. And he says we don’t want to take the shareholders’ money. And you say, well, you pay it, deduct it. But there’s no way to enforce that. We all know that that’s true, we all know that that’s bad, and we all know that there’s something about the tiny things in life happening to you that devalues you, that lessens you, that makes you numb. You have to become more and more numb not to get offended. And pretty soon you get pretty sick. And it seems to me—because I’m really a much more negative person than you are, you’re the lightness, I’m the dark—


But it seems to me, at some point what you really want to say is I won’t deal with a company that doesn’t have a real operator. For one day, I’ll make them lose that much money. For one day, I won’t go to a bookstore where the guy says, "Huh, I don’t know." For one day I won’t say, it’s so hard. I won’t run home to a rerun of Cheers, I can’t bother with it. For one day, you’ll take the trouble to make trouble for someone else, because it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting sick, from sort of retreating. I think that’s what dumbing-down kind of is. It’s too much trouble. And there is such a thing as too much trouble.

It’s hard to find the line because if you’re a snob like me, and somebody says, "What is this in regards to?" I’ll say it’s in regards to Broadway. If you want to know what this is in regard to, tell your boss I want to borrow a lot of money. Where do you start, where do you stop, when are you just a pain in the ass?

That’s a very good way to start. You’ve got to start tiny, as Giuliani said, "Don’t go after the big guys, get the pushers off the street." I know he did a lot of bad things, but I remember when you couldn’t walk around New York after 5 o’clock, and now you can. So with all of that, you really do start with tiny crimes. I think they’re like crimes, they’re like little insults that you get all the time.

November 16, 2009

Working Music

I'm accustomed to tapping my desk in various ways while the computer's busy thinking, but thanks to Dan Wolf, my efforts suddenly seem rather slight.

(see original post for a few more)

November 11, 2009

How to Write a Song

Before I dive into this one, I'll let my good friend Gulley Jimson have at it:
But one day when I was sitting in our London office on Bankside, I dropped a blot on an envelope; and having nothing to do just then, I pushed it about with my pen to try and make it look more like a face. And the next thing was I was drawing figures in red and black, on the same envelope. And from that moment I was done for.
It's just that easy! Really. For quite a while, I had a very positive, but not too intimate relationship with songs. I listened to them, sang them, had some opinions, but write them?... no, I could never do that. That's something only other people do. How do you even do that?

Then one day, I had my Gulley Jimson moment. It was a little less dramatic — I was sitting at a piano — but it felt similarly sudden. I was doing what one is supposed to do in a situation, a temptation appeared, I met it, and now my friends are extremely patient with me.

This trip down memory lane was triggered by some recent housekeeping. Despite my background in composition as an exercise in dot-drawing, my song notations have been very informal.* I work in a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook with disposable ballpoint pens. I like this arrangement for its frugality, simplicity, and unpretentiousness. The pages have space enough to work and pre-marked margins. They don't distract from the work at hand. I write lyrics with chord symbols. As ABBA (via SM) said, if I can't remember my own melodies, who else will?

One built-in of this notation scheme is that songs can become a little organic. I find this ultimately benefits the quality of the writing. However, it's been a little over two years since my Gulley Jimson moment and I decided it was time for a little more precise notation. My memory is sure right now... but I wanted to get things down while they're still sure. So, I fired up Sibelius and went at it. It was fun. I saw what improvements I've made at this or that. I found some moments where it seemed like I was really listening. I was proud of those.

Back to the original question: how do you write a song? My photography teacher in high school offered us a cheeky definition of art: it's whatever artists make. To that, I offer a corollary: you make art by making art. I don't want to underplay the ineffabilities inherent to the process. The sourceless surprises are part of continuing pleasure of it, but there's no denying the dumb earthiness in it. You want to draw a face? Well pick up yer pigment and press it to paper. You want to talk technique and other niceties, that's really a separate conversation. Songwriting became possible for me when I recognized those were separate attitudes.


* What impressionable young experimentalist wouldn't find reading Cage's Notations a radical experience? For all that was in that book, what does it say that my strongest memory of it, what seemed like the most radical notation, was its inclusion of "The Word," lyrics only, attributed to "The Beatles"? (That I was at risk of becoming a songwriter?)