Saturday, April 14, 2012

Songwriting: Storytelling

Having bit the bullet and admitted that I might as well accept the label of songwriter for myself, even at my advanced career age, I have been exploring the terrain, finding out what's out there and what people expect. I've looked into the available networking resources. I've subscribed to American Songwriter magazine, which, unlike many other music mags, is really still more about the music than about celebrity artists and musical gear. In the January/February 2012 issue, which is a Bob Dylan 50th anniversary tribute issue, there are great interviews with Joan Baez and T Bone Burnett. It was a segment of the latter interview that got me thinking this morning, as I sat in my usual morning reading chair, still huddled in night's blankets, starting my day. Here's the exchange that caught my eye:

Do you have an overarching philosophy when it comes to producing?

I've been through so many different stages in my own life. The thing that's been consistent all the way through it is that at the base it's storytelling. All record making, all songwriting, all singing is storytelling. I've always tried to keep that in mind. First you look for the voice.

So you focus mainly on the vocals rather than the music of the sound of an album?

The sound of the music is completely dependent on the sound of the voice. That's reality. The instruments are more or less the same. The human being is completely different. Of course, I don't mean all instruments are exactly the same. There are great and bad sounding instruments, but even bad ones can make a beautiful tone. The person and the voice are so distinct that it changes the way you make sound out of either good or bad instruments. It's about blending the instruments with the tone of the voice.

—T Bone Burnett, interviewed by Hal Bienstock, "T Bone Burnett: The Taste Maker," American Songwriter, January/February 2012, p. 41

The voice is the original instrument. It's integral to the human body. The voice rises out of the center of the body, rises up through the torso, and out through the throat and mouth. The sound is shaped by all these factors, as well as general health. I've noticed that my own singing voice, which was never a robust instrument as an adult, has changed in the past few years when I was at my sickest, and as I've recovered. I have more strength now, more tone, although I'm still not a loud singer. Voices are very individual: you cannot actually standardize the human voice the way you can standardize the manufacture of a guitar or piano, because we're all different. There are some various types that one can identify, certain styles and approaches, but within those parameters there is still a lot of individuality.

One of the things that I've noticed lately in the current wave of over-produced pop stars is that has seemed to be an effort to standardize an interchangeable pop star voice; you may have noticed how pop voices sound more alike now than they ever have, with almost no variation in singer's tone or range. Some of that is because the production is being standardized, and there is a currently a fashion for highly-processed vocals, and a ridiculous fashion on top of that for semi-vocoded voices, so that tone and pitch all sound slightly robotic rather than human. I hope that's a fashion that dies soon, but I'm not holding my breath.

Elsewhere in the interview, Burnett is asked about the current American roots music revival—roots music being the old folk songs and styles, which not only are being researched and performed as they were, but are being used as the basis for new songs by young bands.

It seems like the public has become a lot more interested in roots music over the past decade than it was in the '80s and '90s. What do you attribute that to?

There are a couple of big trends going on in the world. One is towards globalization, the other is localization or tribalism. This is the music of our tribe. The Scots-Irish, Black people, Italians, the people that came here and started cooking up this music. I think things have gotten very depersonalized in the modern world. It started in the 20th century, the century of the self. This is a way to touch base. There songs are hundreds of years old, but they've been rewritten and grown into all kinds of things.

Does roots music speak to a longing for something more authentic?

I think there's always that. My view is that we live in a very de-authenticated world, especially in music. All music has been deauthenticated because it has been compromised so heavily by current technology.

—T Bone Burnett, ibid.

I find the current Top 40 pop music using perfected artificial voices and vocoders to be mannerist, decadent, the result of the end of an artistic era's process. It's representative of the cyberization of late-Modernist culture, in which people aren't sure where they end and their machines begin. Cyberneticists thought about all this in the 60s, and what we're seeing now with people (like me) using their smartphones and tablet computing devices for almost everything has been written about for decades in futurist circles as well as in science fiction. Amazingly thoughtful artistic projects such as the SF anime TV series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (based on the manga by Shirow Masamune) ask the question: what happens to culture, and to ourselves, when we stop being able to tell what parts of us are human and what parts are cyberized? Some of the mannerist music being made nowadays reflects an enormous if unconscious anxiety about these questions, reflected especially in the cyberized voices of the singers and the metric perfection of rhythm tracks created using digital beatboxes and instrumental parts that are never out-of-tune because they're produced and filtered using software synthesizers.

The end result is rather lifeless. It often seems like in pop music the machine has already won. After all, humans are an adaptable species; we often take on the shape of our surroundings, affected by geography, climate, nutrition, noosphere. We can certainly adapt to the cyberized future—as both represented in and thought about in pop cultural literature such as cyberpunk, and pop cultural music such as vocoded Top 40 radio. So we adapt, and change, and are changed. And we respond to digital perfection by looking for the unpredictable artistic glitch, the places the machines fail, the noise that often hides the signal—and so we get musical genres such as aleatoric music, noise music, and dubstep. We also get the soundtrack to the cyber movie Tron: Legacy, or the soundtracks to the Matrix movies, all of which brilliantly combine techno/punk hard beats and the more expected blockbuster orchestral movie soundtracks.

And that takes me back to the original comment that Burnett said that got me thinking: All record making, all songwriting, all singing is storytelling.

All of this is storytelling. Even the decadence of mannerist, deauthenticated, depersonalized "artistic product"—reflecting the contemporary attitude that all things are to be commodified and categorized or they are not real—is a particular story that is being told.

All songwriting is storytelling. All myths around art-making are storytelling. I am reminded of what poet Muriel Rukeyser once opined: The universe is not made up of hydrogen, but of stories. Joseph Campbell once defined myths, both religious and cultural, as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We are a storytelling species. Story is how we communicate with each other. Stories are how we express our communal and individual values, and also how we talk about what went wrong. Movies are storytelling taken to a synergistic level of words-music-image all combined; even journalistic documentary movies are storytelling. Reporting is storytelling. Even cable TV news is storytelling, although you often have to read between the pixels to uncover the narratives being sold us via assumption and innuendo, which lurk beneath the apparent surface of straight-ahead reporting.

So as someone who has been an artist in multiple media for decades, who now finds himself practicing the synergistic art of songwriting, of words-and-music, I find myself becoming a more conscious storyteller than ever before. That is, more consciously aware of the stories I am telling, and more willing to examine those stories as such. I find myself going back to listen to the folk music I explored deeply in an earlier period of life: the roots music, centuries old, that is being remade and reborn now. For Heartlands I wrote a few new folk songs, inspired by the old roots, but brand new. That sensibility, central as it is to living life in the Midwestern Heartlands, is a thread that winds throughout the music, sometimes more overtly, sometimes more deeply buried. And the work overall is storytelling: telling the stories of what it's like to grow up and live as a gay man in the Midwestern Heartlands, which was the origin and purpose of the music being commissioned.

I am now writing new songs. I find myself connecting to the roots Americana musical revival, not because I play an instrument like mandolin (I don't), or because I'm listening to a lot of Americana albums right now (ranging from Alison Krauss to Edgar Meyers' "Appalachia" series to the many artists influenced by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and so on), but rather because I find myself writing story-songs. Probably half of the songs lyrics I've written in the early months of 2012 have been impressionistic, based on things and seen while traveling out West, but the other half have been human stories, based on stories I've witnessed, or read about, or which emerged from my own life. What you observe and what you experience, and what you think about all that, that's all fodder for your art.

This is how we re-authenticate our lives, and re-personalize the world. Storytelling is still myth-making, which is how we make a home in the world, and how we make sense of the world and what it offers us, both soft and hard. Myth is the quest for meaning. Storytelling is the very fabric of the weaving of myth.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

So what about bands like Cocteau Twins, Sigur Rós or Dead Can Dance (Lisa Gerrard) when intelligible/meaningful vocals are not of paramount importance? (On the whole I agree with you by the way, that songwriting = storytelling, but I’m just curious.)

7:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, I assume your question is at least partly rhetorical. :) But it does prompt more thoughts, so thanks.

You know as well as I that music doesn't have to have words in a language we comprehend, or words at all, in order to tell a story. Does a piece of music have an emotional arc, evoke a mood, a feeling, a sense of yearning or solace or langour? Those are all stories. Storytelling doesn't have to be limited to linear narrative, or ballad form, or comprehensible language. Storytelling can be setting a mood.

Songs with words in a language foreign to the listener still tell a story to those who speak that language, including the artists who wrote the song. And in today's times, I'm likely to be able to find a CD by Sigur Ros in which the lyrics are translated for my benefit. I listen to a lot of Scandi folk/rock groups actually, Nordan, Garmarna, Hedningarna, Wimme, all come to mind. (And I've seen several of them live here in on tour in the US.) Jan Garbarek included here.

Lisa Gerrard sings a lot of archaic and ancient texts in other languages, but the Dead Can Dance CDs I have almost all include citations or translations. And Lisa is astounding in her ability to convey story through voice alone. Even her non-textual singing, like on the "Whale Rider" soundtrack, is incredibly evocative.

Instrumental music can tell a story. Look at Copland's populist works, or Ives' symphonies and tone-poems. Symphonic music doesn't have to be overly programmatic to tell a story, either. The story that a Milton Babbitt piece is telling us is "there is no story here." Denial of story is a kind of story, or a meta-story.

One of the reasons I love Borges' meta-fictions is that they subvert linear storytelling narrative logic. They go off in other directions, or are non-linear, or simultaneous. But that's still telling us a story: a story about stories: hence, the term meta-fiction.

Storytelling can also exist on the archetypal and mythic levels, the level of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. I look at the cave paintings from Lascaux, and I see great storytelling in play. It's ambiguous enough that it evokes the archetypes, and invites me to find my own story within the art, or to invent one. What is archaeology and history writing but the creation of narrative out of incomplete data? There's guesswork, to be sure, but imagination and intuition are tools of science just as they are tools of art-making.

So the analogy that Burnett used in the interview still holds up, I think.

10:58 AM  

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