Unwanted

You can't know something without nothing, you can't know up without down, and you can't know self without other

Life is the tension of opposites - a vacillation between polar opposites. It's through sadness that we can know happiness, through boredom that we can enjoy surprise.

When we experience extremes, we come to the realization that these supposed opposites are not adversaries, but two sides of the same coin, two sides of a magnet -- inextricably dependent upon each other in order to be discerned at all.

We experience the world through our senses using this tension of opposites. 

A table is hard to a human being's hand, because a human hand is softer than the wood. It is because our hand is soft that the table feels hard. It's a subjective experience that we, as humans, have. 

The same is true in music. A song can only feel loud and powerful if it has something to contrast it, a softer section perhaps. Otherwise, we would eventually become desensitized to the loudness and it would become normalized in our ears.

It's because of this that our preferences are fluid. We seek novelty in order to experience surprise and continue our growth and inspiration. 

That's why today, I'm sharing something I found that totally knocked my socks off and challenged all my assumptions about what constitutes "good music".

It's a project called "The Most Unwanted Song" by Komar, Melamid, and Dave Soldier. The goal was to survey a bunch of folks to find out the elements in music they disliked the most -- and then make a song combining as many of these elements as they could. These included holiday music, bagpipes, pipe organ, children singing, product placement, cowboys, rap, opera singing, politics, bossanova synths, banjos, harps, and tubas. 

They also made "The Most Wanted Song" from elements that people reported they liked in music. Listen to it first here:

ot bad, right? You might have wondered if you heard it before in an elevator or the waiting room at your dentist. It's sort of mellow and predictable and, for that reason, easy to tune out.

Now, listen to "The Most Unwanted Song". Oh, by the way, it's 22 minutes. Apparently people also hated really long songs:

You might be thinking, "What the hell just happened?!" I certainly did. But I was also gripped the entire time because I didn't know what was going to come next. And when parts returned like the children's choir singing about random holidays and shopping for them at Walmart, I burst out laughing.

It's totally GREAT and novel, and worth paying attention too. It's the opposite of what people say that don't want, but something about the combination of all those hateful elements reveals something beautiful we couldn't hear or appreciate before.

The mind feeds off of novelty and is bored by consistency. The most persistent stimuli are the ones we are least aware of. Like brushing your teeth, climbing some stairs, or driving our car. We rarely pay conscious attention; we just sort of perform these things on autopilot. They don't enter our mind because they don't require our conscious attention. These things are predictable, and predictable things, evolutionarily speaking, the brain learns to ignore. The conscious mind is scanning for what is different, what it needs to attend to.

We can use this understanding to better grab the listener's attention with our art. By more carefully juxtaposing the elements of our music, heightening disparity, so as to make each emotional effect more dramatic.

Try using the power of opposites in your songwriting and see what happens:

Play with:

  • Loudness and Softness
  • Staccato and Legato
  • High and Low Registers
  • Vague and Specific Lyrics
  • Many Words and Sparse Words
  • Sound and Silence
  • Opposing Themes (Cold and Hot)
  • Slow and Fast Tempos

If you'd like to hear more about the making of the two tracks above, listen to this segment of the radio show This American Life.

 

 

 

Revisionist

"Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." - Elvis Costello, liner notes for Goodbye Cruel World

People who know me, know I'm a huge fan of Elvis Costello. No, not a fan. A FANATICAL follower of Declan Patrick MacManus. 

There are few musicians alive that can match Elvis' genius and almost none that touch the sheer fecundity of his creative output.

That's why I was so excited to tune into one of my new favorite podcasts, Revisionist History, to hear an entire episode dedicated to him. The podcast is the work of another towering intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell, and each episode is a total gem that is wildly different from the next in theme.

The reason I'm sharing this is because Episode 7's theme is about two different ways of viewing the creative genius: Conceptual vs. Experimental.

The Conceptual Genius is one that has the big picture all contained in their mind and diligently goes about translating that pure vision from their heads into the external world.

The Experimental Genius is one that might not have a clear vision of what they want to say but has a starting point from which they can tinker and tweak, composting the the idea, turning it over and over, until something emerges -- sometimes over a long period of time.

I think the later kind of process is something that provides a better template for beginners -- those who are still honing their craft. It treats inspiration through iteration. This is important because, as artists, we can often be intimidated by the heights we're striving to reach. Ira Glass put this beautifully when he said,

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So learning how to flow and be organic can be a powerful philosophy in getting us over this frustration of our tools for expression (aka our "craft"), which are limited, while we still move forward.

Listen to the episode

My first introduction to this style came in a writing course in college. We listened to an album called "It's Not Too Bad". It was the collected demos of a little song called "Strawberry Fields Forever" by John Lennon. Throughout the album you go from the first seeds of the the song, to its half-baked introduction to the other Beatles, to it's final honing in the studio.

It's notoriously hard to find the album but there are some collections of the tracks scattered on Youtube.

Here are some of the earliest demos. In these first recordings, Lennon is strumming through chords in a sort of continuous loop playing with them in a kind of mantra and tweaking the melody in garbled nonsense words, what Jeff Tweedy of Wilco refers to as a "Mumble Track". Cool side note, at the end you get to hear the very first time he ever sings "Let me take you down....". Amazing.

 

Then listen again as it starts to take shape.

I don't know about you, but this gives me hope that some of my humble little inspirations can grow to something great.

Process

"Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating." - John Cleese, member of Monty Python

First off, this website exists because I just read "Show Your Work" by Austin Kleon. It's the sequel to his New York Times Bestseller "Steal Like An Artist". Both are great books. Clicking on these titles will take you to the page where you can (and should) order them.

Kleon summarizes, "If Steal Like an Artist was a book about stealing influence from other people, (Show Your Work) is about how to influence others by letting them steal from you".

I think what is so invigorating about these books is that they turn old concepts of creativity and connection on their heads. Concepts like "all great artists are solitary geniuses" - people that are blessed with some innate talent or insight that others don't have access to. They create originality in a vacuum - effortlessly - without anyone else's help or influence. Spoiler: that's bullshit.

Viewed THIS way, any creative person who runs into failure is bound to throw his pen/clay/accordian out the window and call it quits. Either that, or slog through their process with a sort of grim duty and feeling of inadequacy.

But Kleon is among the growing voices of artists and scientists that are sharing a different view of the true process of creativity. A view that leaves an opening for everyone. One that appreciates, imitates, iterates, and elaborates on the work of those we admire. A process that is a much more accessible, practical and sane way of operating in artistic endeavors.

That is what this website is about. This is a forum for playful explorations into processes that work for me as a songwriter.

I hope you join in.