Saturday, August 11, 2012

Songwriting: Scraps

This morning, a few days back from camping, peacefulness, and silence Up North, and I find myself still un-eager to leap back into the fray of everyday mundane life. Fortunately, it's the weekend, and things slow down anyway.

This morning, almost the first thing in my mind, is a scrap of a song lyric, emerging more or less fully-formed, as I strive to get out of bed and begin the day. Slowly, no rush.



Can you sleep away your life?
Of course. Most people do.
Most people think this busy-busy fair
is real, when nothing is less true.

Do you wake up in the morning?
Or has the sunrise passed you by?
When birds are calling
and ships are falling on the lake,

That's when the sunrise
calls you home.




When I'm out camping, the sun hitting the tent is what usually wakes me up. It depends where I'm camping, then, whether I wake at dawn, or an hour or two later. Without the artificial support of powered illumination—you know, lightbulbs, television, computer screens—I tend not to stay up as late, either. Even with a good bonfire to drum and play flute at, it's rare for me to want to stay up as late as one does back in Snivellization.

I'm a musician. I've mostly kept musicians hours throughout my life. Nightlife hours. I've never been a morning person.

But now I seem to have become one, mostly against my will. Over the past few years, my required nightly sleep has changed from nine hours to seven. I'm usually done after seven hours of sleep, anymore. Since the surgery, I tend to wake up earlier in the morning than I ever used to. Partly because since the surgery I can't sleep the way I used to, and I often wake several times in the night, do the needful, then go back to sleep.

I've also learned that, despite the usual unpredictability of the creative urge, to which I am long accustomed, lately I seem to write in the morning, in the first half of the day. Not exactly as part of the morning routine, but nothing is certain anymore. Lots of things have changed since the surgery.



The last vivid dreams before waking are often the first things I write down. I've kept a regular, albeit not daily, dream journal, for a few decades. I tend to have vivid, lucid dreams regardless, always in color, and it has always been that way. I have memories of dreams going back to childhood, and my journal is full of other dreams written down as notes and narratives and images and symbols. Once or twice in my life, I've woken up with the memory of dream-music, which I then wrote down; once or twice, these have become musical compositions. The same thing has happened with poems.



Scraps of lyrics appear these days with some regularity. I've taken to always carrying my little lyric-writing notebook in my pocket, the same way I always have a camera with me. (People ask me how I get such unusual and beautiful photographs; the secret is simple: Always have a camera with you, and always be willing and ready to stop and make a photograph. The same is true of poems: the readiness is all.) I like little unlined Moleskin notebooks for writing lyrics; a perfect size for carrying your pocket, along with a pen and your penknife.

And your pocket rocks. There's this beach in northern California, at the southern tip of Redwoods National & State Parks. I first camped there in 1993. In the morning, I found a round smooth black sea-polished basalt stone that sparkled in the sun and fit perfectly into my hand. I've carried a rock from that beach in my pants pocket every day since then.

Over the past few months, and on the recent roadtrip out West, and while camping Up North, I wrote almost no poems. Instead I've written a lot of sketches for song lyrics. Bits and pieces, as this morning, which will eventually shape themselves into songs. While I was camping, I did a couple of paintings on the iPad, using the ArtRage app, which I highly recommend. Best virtual paint tool I've used in years. While camping, I also wrote the music notation for the melody and chords of a couple of songs I'd finished the lyrics for over the past month. Now I will sit down and do a formal lead sheet, get that all spruced up and see about recording demos.



Singer-songwriter Beck is doing something old and new: he's releasing his next album as a book of songs, for the listener to perform. As with a century ago, during the height of Tin Pan Alley songwriting, during the time when every home had a parlor piano, Beck, a contemporary singer-songwriter, releases his music as written notation for you to take home and play for yourself. Sign me up for purchasing this when it comes out in December 2012; I think it's brilliant. It inspires me to think about doing an eventual album of my own new songs, and include notation. In this day of digital downloads and perfected studio recordings, to engage one's audience by making them play the songs themselves: an old idea made brand new. Context matters.

I wrote in "Dulcimer Song," one of the songs from my commissioned piece Heartlands, something about this. I find it interesting how all of this converges, and what was old becomes new again. Here's the relevant excerpt from the lyrics for "Dulcimer Song":

The parlor piano
around which we sang
the wheezing old organ
that led us in hymns

Daddy played the dulcimer
while Mama sang loud

And these were our Sundays
in our little farm town. . . .

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I am a member of a group on Facebook where amongst other things newbie writers ask inane questions. Only a couple of days ago someone asked us if we were morning writers or afternoon or what. I bite my tongue when I see questions like this because I’ve long recognised that the words come when they come and we can’t do a damn thing to influence them. For example I got up this morning went into my office to get dressed, i.e. stuck on a pair of jogging bottoms (not that I have ever jogged in my life), switched on my PC and as it was booting up picked up a piece of paper from the top of the printer and wrote a poem. After breakfast I took a look at it, copied it into Word, formatted it, changed one word (an ‘actually’ to a ‘really’ to lose two syllables) and I was done. Where did it come from? I have no idea. It had nothing to do with the dream I was revelling in as I woke but I’m long past caring. I printed it out, handed it to Carrie to get her seal of approval and stuck it in the big red folder.

I find it interesting that you’re going through a period of song writing. I haven’t had an idea for a song in twenty years but I don’t consider the door shut. I haven’t written a short story in twelve years (apart from a few scraps of flash) but, again, I never say never. At the moment I’d like to be working on a new novel but all I’ve been producing for weeks has been poetry. But at least I’m writing and that’s all I really care about.

I don’t know Beck. I know the name but that’s it. I did hear a rather cute version of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ last night by someone called Ellie Goulding (you can see the video here) . It not quite an imaginative as Eva Cassidy’s cover of ‘What a Wonderful World’ but I’m going to see what else she’s done. I think my daughter might like her. Her favourite singer is Tori Amos. Now I think about it I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone cover one of Elton’s songs before. I bet if I do some research there will be scores.

4:24 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Oh, I totally agree that the words come when they come. That's the way it's always been for me. They can come anytime, anywhere, and that's why I carry a notebook. It's just that I've been noticing that lately they seem to come more often early in my day, rather than, say, late at night. I make no assumptions about this, I just notice it.

You're lucky to have Carrie as sounding board and editor. Most of us lack someone like that, to support and hone our writing, and of course that's one reason we connect with online workshops and FB groups, as annoying as that can sometime be. I feel like I've been through enough workshops to have graduated, finally, and am still looking for places to discuss writing where every other question isn't at the beginning level. I'm all for supporting new writers, and I myself would like to do more than just that, anymore.

And I agree, never say never. I may still have that one SF novel in me. Or not. But I think about it sometimes. And I'm sure that even though what I write mostly goes into songwriting these days, partly by interest and choice, that I will still write poems. I did realize some years ago that when i am musically active, musically busy and creatively satisfied, I tend to write fewer poems. I rather view songwriting as convergent, as multi-modal. I'm exercising a different of poetry here, in tandem with music, and not in it's absence.

8:59 AM  

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