Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Song or Sonic Collage

Ansel Adams used to say that before he took a picture he'd already factored every aspect of photography and dark room expertise into the shot. He knew what film ISO he'd need to use to get the proper effect, what Aperture and shutter speed would be required to capture the light and detail, what lens he'd use, what time of day the shot needed to be taken, where he'd probably have to dodge and burn in the dark room to get the light to pop, etc. Nothing was left to chance, even if chance ultimately played a role in the final product-- creative accidents still happened, but their opposite (creative disasters) were minimized. For Ansel Adams, "craft" and "skill" were paramount to the "art" of his pictures. The three were inseparable, and there were no shortcuts.

In today's world of digital photography, it's possible for anyone to achieve certain professional effects with the camera. No longer does the amateur have to study the craft of photography or spend years in the dark room learning about the volatility of chemicals and photo paper because virtually any effect or operation can be applied to a raw digital shot to give the photo some of the same effects it took Adams many hours to create. Because creative disasters have been virtually eliminated with "undo", creative accidents play a much greater role in the final products of amateur photographers. In general, there's more experimentation, but less knowledge of the fundamentals. More haphazard shooting because it's inexpensive, less planning of the shot.

Does this mean anyone can be Ansel Adams? Hardly.

Of course, this is a songwriting blog, so why am I writing about photography? I can think of no better metaphor to explain what has happened to the art of songwriting since "craft" and "skill" have gone the way of the dodging wand.

I was recently asked to coach a songwriting duo who were planning to do a CD. A friend of mine was producing the duo but he felt the songs were not up to par so he asked me to take a listen and make some critical suggestions. Once again I found myself in the position of trying to explain the difference between songwriting and something I call the sonic collage. The songs had some fine moments, but they weren't focused, they were full of lyric contradictions and irrelevant lines. The melodies sometimes had catchy phrases but they weren't repeated or they were in places that distracted from the main melodic themes (if there were any at all) or they didn't draw attention to the hook. The songs were all too long-- not just by commercial standards, but by any standard of human interest (the self indulgent factor). They were obviously written in a stream of conscious method, probably in less than an hour or two, with no re-writing attempted.

I made my comments to the pair in a carefully worded email. My friend said the duo was very interested in what I had to say, they even agreed with some of it, but ultimately they just wanted to get into the studio and cut the CD they'd already written. The money was burning a hole in their pockets and after it all, it was their record label...

Why study songwriting when you can make anything vaguely resembling a song
sound good with Protools and judicious editing? I'm sure my friend will cut a decent CD, but they'll spend more time cutting, pasting and undoing than was spent writing the tunes. In fact it seems that a song is now just the vehicle that gets you to the cutting, pasting and undoing part. It's all about how soon you can get in there and piece it all together into the sonic collage, better known as the modern song. Then you can either go home and learn the song off the record that you've made, or else you just perform to backing tracks. And the best part : almost anyone can do it. All those boring years of study, all those highly educational creative disasters that can't be "undone", the lessons that teach you to do the work before you spend the money, the "skill" and the "craft" that goes into the art of song; unnecessary.

Unnecessary until one day you get on stage next to someone who has spent the time learning the skill and craft behind the art, and put the energy into the song before spending the money on the record. Then you will pull out your sonic collage and sing in earnest, trying to convince the audience they are being communicated to. But your sonic collages won't stand a chance against the real songs. The real songs will hit their mark while you send out lilting melodies and random thoughts like bubbles in the breeze.

Do you think I'm wrong?

Come and sit here on the stage with me...

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Joe NJ said...


I can’t agree with you more. I’m frustrated with certain songwriters in the area. They are friends, I have shared the stage with some of them and I truly want them to do great work.

They can complete a song in a few days or less. Re-writes are almost non-existent and the feedback they receive from listeners (who are not in the business) somehow serve as validation that their songs are just fine.

So after having some degree of professional success and studying the craft for years (and continuing to do so), it takes me weeks or months and dozens of re-writes to complete a song. But these writers manage to “get it right” with such little effort. They believe they are writing great songs and I’m getting nowhere with my efforts to convince them that it takes more.

In the past you’ve talked about things like respecting the time of those people who give you their attention to listen, about writing museum quality songs and about finding the true characters voice. All of this is being ignored and I feel I’m being told by these writers as you so accurately portrayed it: “the "skill" and the "craft" that goes into the art of song; unnecessary”.

But you should know there are still writers out here who appreciate what you’re saying, aspire to do great work, respect this craft and understand that a truly great song will stand the test of time.


Tim McMullen said...

Hey, Craig—
Nice to have you back. You had a break neck schedule for the last month or so—it’s got to be exhausting, but it’s also a chance to put those songs out there and see and feel the audience react. For a performing songwriter, that is a distinct pleasure despite the wear and tear.

I like your “sonic collage” term. I have often labeled the distinction as butt music vs. brain music, and I don’t mean either pejoratively. “Butt music” is essentially felt rhythmically, with the listener often not even knowing what is being said beyond the incredibly repetitive hook (this accounts for about 70% of recorded pop music, all styles; diehard fans do eventually learn the lyrics and can sing along, but only after the first thirty or forty listens). “Brain music” obviously emphasizes the lyrics; too often, though, they can become repetitive or rambling, self-indulgent or self-important. Finding that mix, what your last blog called “the marriage,” is difficult and time consuming. Many might wonder if it is, in fact, attainable for most. The would-be songwriter can imitate contemporary forms enough to write serviceable songs; the journeyman can study the traditional forms and the successful practitioners of the past and write marketable songs; but not all writers are equal. As you suggest, not everybody can be Ansel Adams. The person who hears that unique, beautiful melody or that remarkable turn of phrase really is special. I know this runs counter to much of the advice in your blog. Why encourage and challenge writers if they don’t have that “special spark”?

Here’s why: because that “spark” really can come to anybody. Your demand is that writers take their craft seriously, that they work at the song until it really comes together, until it contains nothing incongruous, nothing superfluous, nothing lazy or compromising. I think that you have put your finger on it with your challenge to step up on stage with your song. My brother Tucker (an excellent lead guitarist and vocalist) and I were discussing the new Jackson Browne album, and that got us around to his two solo acoustic albums. Tuck observed that, as a writer, Jackson hears the song full blown. The arrangment is inherent in the written song. He is an Ansel Adams. Another such songwriter with a new album is a former LA cohort of Browne’s, John David Souther. A long-time Nashville transplant, he wrote and co-wrote some truly classic songs in the 70’s and 80’s. His first album in nearly 25 years is a very interesting departure, using a small jazz combo, almost no overdubs, and no lead guitar; ah, but the songs. The arrangements are really interesting, fun and intriguing; nevertheless, you can easily envision Souther performing these as solo, acoustic songs.

I have to admit that I feel rather hypocritical, though, echoing your call for diligence. Back when I was writing and performing, I saw my songs work the magic. I saw audiences laugh at the funny ones and cry at the moving ones. I had people tell me that this or that song really meant something to them. Like I said, that’s a great feeling. These days, though, my songs are really just “Hallmark cards” for my wife: for her birthday or our anniversary (and for keep up the illusion that I still write). It is a sort of game I play with myself, to sit down and write the song on that day and play it for her in the evening. Your assessment of the songs that you were asked to analyze really rings true for my recent effort: spontaneous, unrevised, rambling or redundant, messy metaphors or incongruous imagery; the song is finished in 3 minutes, but it goes on for 4:30. The good thing for me is that I know it. I put it up on YouTube for a few friends to hear, but it is not merely a rough draft, it is barely a second run-through of the song. I may or my not choose to make a real song out of it someday, but I know that it is not complete; it is not really a song. Your blog gives perspective to writers and encourages them to work at the song until it’s really done; to work at the song until you can get up there on stage, just you and your instrument, and bring that song home to the audience.

Like I said, glad to have you back.

chromehead said...

Thanks for your comments, Tim and Joe.

I probably hear too many songs in my daily routines. I'm asked, even paid, to evaluate the work of developing writers. I also conduct weekly evening seminars in which I critique songs. I'm handed CDs at my shows and at other events I attend.

I could probably sum up my reaction to most of it rather simply. Great writers work very hard. The biggest flaw in what I critique is simply a lack of effort to get it right. Of course some are incapable of focusing that much attention on a song for a variety of reasons. This doesn't mean they can't write a great song, it simply means their great song will be a creative accident of the spontaneous nature. They may have to write two hundred not-so-great ones to find that wonderful accident, but great songs are still possible even if you are too distracted, too busy with your job, or just not the kind of person who can focus sharply on one project.

My main contention here is this : hard work doesn't kill the joy or fun of writing, it enhances it. If you don't love studying songs, you won't learn about the hidden joy of discovering what all those great writers were actually doing when they wrote their little masterpieces.

Tim mentions Jackson. Perhaps there's no better example. His goal is write a song that needs no support, no explanation, no excuses, no defense, and no protection on stage-- just him and his instrument. It stands or falls as a "naked" song. Pure communication in the art form of a song.

His standards are as high as they come, and I have been his student for 35 years. Not because I want to imitate him, but because I want to raise my own standards as high as possible.

Does this mean I'll never write a spontaneous song? No. It means that when I write a spontaneous song I'll have tons of tools, a full palate, a broader canvas.

To those of you who feel that learning is a chore, I say maybe you haven't learned from the right people. If studying a great song is a chore, then all of life is a chore and I feel sorry for you.

Tim Wheeler said...

Can you sing a "sonic collage" in the shower?

Anonymous said...

...Like bubbles in the breeze...Ahhh....
I think you're right!
Cheers Mr. Bickhardt!

Anonymous said...


I completely agree with your thoughts.
Since I've only been hanging out in the rank amateur herd I've noticed a couple things. They all want to create good music but they don't understand that its a form of communication. So they start out without knowing what they want to say or how to say it. They go at it as if its a great spiritual mystery and to bring coherent thought into it might make the great and powerful muse (whom they have yet to meet) run away, never to return.
If they have a good idea or a catchy phrase as a hook, they can't figure out what kind of support information to put in there that makes it complete. They forget that the listener has no background on what they are trying to say. They know the skill level in writing they want to attain but have never taken the time to dissect the songs they love, to see how their heroes managed to hit the mark.

It took me 20 years to figure out how to write a song I liked. Even longer to write a song someone else liked.