Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little Miracles

A great song is essentially an inspired idea. There’s a loaded word: “inspiration”. Who would dare use it inside the profane halls of Music Row these days? The music industry has found the commodity of mediocrity quite sufficient for its purposes, and if you go around talking about cosmic things like inspiration you better be prepared to be laughed at.

I don’t mean to imply that nobody’s working very hard. On the contrary, everyone is very industrious. The problem is that great songwriting, and great art for that matter, transcends a “job”. Inspiration isn’t the product of work. Yes, we must work in order to sustain ourselves so we can ultimately arrive at some moment of inspiration. But you cannot tweak mediocrity into greatness by perfecting its vapid shell. There has to be something inside the shell first. You cannot pick the first serviceable idea that happens to come along and build an artifice around it and expect the world to call it a shrine.

There seems to be a lot of confusion between sound and substance these days. Perhaps substance is an acquired taste. Maybe butter and white bread are delicacies to a certain kind of palate, I dunno. Me, I need flavor. I don’t give a damn how high that Idol kid can sing or how well his hair products hold up under the TV lights, or how in tune and full of attitude he or she is. I’m not impressed by the fact that the hook and the verse of a hit song tie together cleverly as long the whole idea is as dumb as Cheese Whiz and half as nutritious.

The greatness of anything is contained in the inspired idea itself. That’s true of the telephone and of the great song. If it’s truly great, it was born of a glimpse and an impulse. The impulse was an unstoppable desire to bring a vision to life (inspire literally means to “breath into life” a creative endeavor). If we acknowledge that life is a miracle, then the process of inspiration and creative results is also miraculous in its own way.

Who would argue in retrospect that the best Beatles records weren’t creative miracles? Does anyone really believe that you can get four really talented musicians into a studio and turn them into the Beatles? If not, then logic, hard work and formula cannot replace the mystical and all-important element of inspiration. The chemistry of creativity is as important to its success as the chemistry of life is to the thriving of an organism.

Time after time I find myself listening to songs or records and thinking, “Why did anyone bother to make this?” There is certainly nothing even remotely inspired about it.

When an inspired song raises the hair on the back of your neck, you know you’ve encountered something wonderful, even miraculous. But the vast majority of songs and records today are simply labored into existence at great expense of time and energy. They are pure works of work, not works of art; neither inspired nor required.

This isn’t to say to you, o lowly songwriter, that you shouldn’t make the effort to write on a regular basis. On the contrary, practice is essential, and so is keeping the “machinery” well oiled. Write enough songs so that you can discover the moment of inspiration, because without knowing what inspiration is, you will never be great at what you’re attempting to do.

You will not discover inspiration immediately. None of this magic “just happens” one day after you’ve written a couple of exercises. To the seasoned songwriter, the inspired idea feels like inspiration because he or she can sense that it’s above and beyond previous limitations (the level of mediocrity we can all hit on any given day), and we can feel the irresistible urge to tackle it, as well as the confidence that it can be tackled.

Giving something life isn’t as simple as baking a cake or painting a wall. You don’t give a dead idea life, you put a living idea into a song. How do you know it’s a living idea? It pulsates with possibilities; it demands to be born; it’s a part of you, sustaining itself in your mind like a gestating being. The gestation of a great song to the writer is almost as miraculous as the gestation of a child to its mother.

So laugh all you want about inspiration, Music Row. The last laugh will be mine because I know when I’ve witnessed a little miracle.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Monday, March 2, 2009

Polarity Of Mind

I’ve just returned from a ten day road trip that included a few days in Nashville. I might blog about the trip next time, but for now I’m following up on my last post, Deep Creativity. I came upon a wonderful series of articles by Merlin Mann on the same subject called “Making Time To Make” (note this link is only Part One of the series, see the other two parts at the 43Folders Blog). In it he quotes novelist Neal Stephenson on the subject of Internet (and general) distraction:

“Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless."
The four-hour time block is one that I grew accustomed to in my days of routine songwriting. Even if you have a day job, this is something you can squeeze into a weekend or maybe a quiet evening if you happen to have an easy day at work. You must begin by feeling relaxed about the length of time you’ve set aside to work. Even if you end up discarding an hour’s worth of failed effort, you still have ample time to go deep into the zone for a solid verse or chorus.

Don’t be in a hurry to commit to an idea. Turn off the ringer on the phone, don’t check your email, and if possible, try to get the place to yourself (send your spouse to a movie or pass up a party you won’t hate to miss). Don’t jot down thoughts in a hurry, re-think your concepts, clarify and distill the language. Work your way inward until you pick up the faint trail of a solid idea. This metaphor is appropriate: you are in the wilderness of the imagination. Don’t expect to find the well-worn path. If you do find it, be suspicious.

I emphasize this because it’s often the case that a real breakthrough is only possible in deep concentration. Short bursts of time-effort can sometimes yield a good spontaneous line or on rare occasions a couplet, but a tight lyric cannot be written one phrase at a time while multi-tasking. Your brain must be firing on all cylinders. You must have the complete resource of language, metaphor, rhyme, and imagery focused like a laser on the task, and the focus must last for as long as it takes to finish the job (the verse or chorus you’re working on).

Another way I think of this is as a kind of unified “polarity of mind”. It’s as if all the neurons are pointing in random directions when I begin a writing task, and I must first harness the “magnetic” current to get the thought process flowing in one direction : toward the goal. As long as part of my mind is occupied on a different problem, I’m not unified, not fully focused. I can tell when the focus is there because there’s a physical sensation of tremendous mental power aimed at an invisible target—I know the target is there, yet it eludes direct perception at first. Gradually I begin to see an outline, then as concentration increases I can see the bull’s-eye. There is also a sense of expectation, an “aura” that precedes the discovery of the right line or word—you can feel it emerging just before you pounce on it.

Writing is not free-association, scribbling down the thoughts as fast as they come to you, although this can be useful at the start of a writing session. That’s like drawing the treasure map. But you must still follow the map, and what you discover as you follow is the stuff that makes the song. Great lyric writing isn’t just singable language. Go deep and find out what you can make of an idea, don’t just skim the surface between emails.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt