Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Process of Writing 4: Lightning

A few days ago, rather than drive home through a fierce thunderstorm after chorus rehearsal in Madison, I went with some of the guys to a local all-night restaurant for awhile. One example of a restaurant chain I often frequent, but don't feel like giving free advertising to by naming it here, it's one I know I can reliably find gluten-free food at. The night was windy, the moon was high in the sky, and off to the east and south a bank of restless clouds was continuously and relentlessly lit from within by lightning flashes. I would have to drive into that, if I left right away. So I spent a good hour or hour and a half at the restaurant with the guys. We ate, we chatted, we laughed, we told jokes, we told stories. It was a good night.

By the end of our gathering, only three of us left after the others had gone, we evolved a discussion about what it's like to live as a gay man in the Upper Midwest, and other aspects of personal story that lie at the root of the new music commission I am undertaking for the chorus. It was a very good discussion, and some real insights and terrific anecdotes came forward. Meanwhile, throughout our talk, the restaurant's music system was playing 50s and 60s novelty and nostalgia pop songs; songs I hadn't heard in a long time, but which seemed apt for our walks down memory lane. Those songs lingered in the back of my mind throughout our conversation.

When I finally left to drive home, I was tired but content with the day. I had indeed given the storm enough time to pass by, and didn't have to drive through it. The drive home was smooth and relatively easy.

About halfway home, driving down the interstate through the dark, a melody came into my head. Just a simple solo voice line, something mostly positive in feel, with a little bit of poignance to it, but an upbeat tune. I sang it to myself enough times to memorize it, building a longer line, making some chords around it. Ideas for chorus and piano parts to accompany the solo line. Then some words started to appear. A phrase or two, based on one of the life-stories we had been talking about at the restaurant. Just a few words at first, but by the time I got home, I had three short verses of lyric.

I was one
gay son
in our family
Mother disowned me

Then my brother
made two
gay sons
in our family
Mother did not know
what to do. . . .

I prefer subtle rather than blatant rhymes, and I like internal rhymes. Nothing chimes more clumsily on the ear than obvious and predictable end-rhymes, especially when the line is as short as it often needs to be for a good song lyric. Easy end-rhymes make things way too sing-songy, way too easy to make inappropriately ironic. So slant-rhymes, off-rhymes, and internal rhymes are going to appear a lot in the lyrics for the commission—many segments based on the stories I have gathered, as this was—but not more than a few telling end-rhymes. Where you place a rhyme can create dramatic tension, and can itself be a musical effect, like a canon or leitmotif. I also like to use structural rhyme, forms and melodies that recur in separate stanzas without being too blatant. This song has a few rhymes across each stanza, which the listener will take in and interpret as unifying structural points, even if they're not really conscious of the technique of it.

Poetic craft is meant to serve the poetry, not serve itself. Craft is meant to be invisible, or appear easy. It's too tempting to pull out all your poetic chops and over-write song lyrics; just as it can be equally tempting to pull out all one's musical tricks and over-write the music. Most poets who come to songwriting overwrite their lyrics at first, trying to show off every crafty trick they know how to do. Simpler is usually better, though, in song lyrics.

The rest of the drive home, I was singing or humming words and music to this new song in my head, sometimes out loud. When I got home, I went into the house, and immediately sat down and notated in score what had come to me on the drive home. When I was done, I had a complete song sketched out, whose theme and elements were based on some of the stories that the guys had told me earlier, about their own lives. I've written down the essential parts now, enough to shape the overall form of the song, and need only to fill in the bones of the accompaniment. The words and the music came together, this time. A phenomenon I've heard about, from singer-songwriters, but haven't often experienced myself. I added a little bit more tonight, while just sitting and thinking it over.

So, lightning strikes, and you get a full piece out of it. That was a good night's effort.

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Blogger Eshuneutics said...

A sound post (in all senses of the word). I liked your reflections on rhyme and music/song.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I haven't really talked about the lyric-writing aspect in this kind of detail before, so it useful to think it through.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Danny said...

Now that I've heard the piece, it's great to hear some of the story behind it :)

11:39 PM  

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