Monday, May 01, 2006

Dabbling With Lyrics In Attention Deficit Era

Critics giving their own comments on pHinn's song lyrics

[Warning: the following one is a totally subjective, self-obsessed rant (probably familiar to people who keep reading this blog for morbid reasons of their own). If you don't like that type, skipping it now is warmly recommended.]

"A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They're like strange countries you have to enter. You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback – it helps to be moving. Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving."
- Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume One, p. 165

What Dylan says here can sound oversimplified, but as for me, I've found it very true. Potential phrases for lyrics come to me any time when I get up from my sofa and leave the apartment, am walking on the street, on my way to eat or back home, and the hardest thing is to write these words down before I forget them. They come and go on their own will, I can't force them, and the most important thing is to catch them on paper before they vanish forever.

I guess I've got some sort of attention deficit disorder. There's no other way to explain my short attention span otherwise. But our culture doesn't exactly do its best to make us learn to be more patient, does it? It's a culture of soundbites, TV commercials and music videos with rapid edits; talking and thinking in shorthand. Fast food for thought, anything not to get bored. The trick, I guess, is trying to accumulate these little pieces somehow and try to make something larger out of them in time. That's how I write my own lyrics anyway.

I collect these little phrases (which more often than not have nothing to do with each other) in my notebook; these tiny fragments and expressions coming out of the blue, without me even understanding what the hell they are all about. Then, when I start writing new lyrics, I browse through this notebook of mine filled with little fragments, phrases and separate couplets to find if there’s anything useful for this particular song. It's like a process of alchemy of trying to create something out of this disjointed heap of verbal junk.

As far as the style goes, I think my favourite lyrics always retain an element of unexplainable, a subconscious element, like in the movies of Buñuel or Lynch. Even though superficially it might make little sense, you feel you are really struck by something, even if you don't exactly know what. At its best it may stay to haunt you.

I also like the short "telegram" style of lyrics where things are put brief and the listener is supposed to fill the gaps in his/her own head. It's a style of lyrical shorthand, I think. Some examples might be Marc Bolan of T-Rex's lyrics, Sigue Sigue Sputnik's 'Love Missile F1-11' (which we covered with Kompleksi) or Syd Barrett at his most elliptical and enigmatic. There are so many ways to get the end result, but these are the styles I like the best at the moment.

One thing you have to understand is that my style is more based on instinct than on technique. A lot of my work – whether it was text or images - is created by acting on impulse, without any premeditation. As if creating first some single pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, only then trying to find a way to make them fit together somehow. Somehow that way of working is a form of meditation too. Surrealism made me understand that everything is in fact connected (or interconnected) even though single pieces would seemingly have nothing to do with each other. We create totally new associations as we go along.

I’m a great believer in intuitive, "natural" technique. All learning is basically an imitative process. For all my life I've lived in this culture of ours: soaked in and absorbed words, catchphrases, buzzwords, images, melodies, rhythms, compositions; all transmitting a sort of unworded understanding on how relations between people and things work. I still don't know which is more important: consciously studying or just absorbing everything around you as you go on.

I can't read notes but I think I've got some sort of intuitive understanding of music and rhythm, learned only by years of listening. And if I can't just create my own music exactly "by the book", to hell with that (something which has probably created a certain amount of frustration in Mike Not - who's more professional in his musical approach - as we have created our own stuff). Just don't confuse my head with numbers or having to count beats. I was never good at maths but I somehow liked geometry because it was visual; I could see the numerical connections in my eyes and in that way understand them. - In a way, this takes us to synaesthesia, the mixing of senses (e.g. sounds as colours, geometrical patterns, etc.) Bach's music, for example, I can hear/see as cosmic constellations of stars (basically, complex mathematical equations; if only my maths classes at school would have been based on Brandenburg Concertos!)

All in all, I suppose it is only some sort of gut feeling on which it is all based with me: a sort of magic carpet which I can ride only as long as I don't start pondering too much about the technique which keeps it in the air. If I do, only then it is bound to fall.

As far as music theory goes, I'm aware of being somewhat an idiot savant. I barely understand such things as diatonic and pentatonic scales (the latter is a "Chinese-sounding" thing, played with black keys on keyboard, isn't it?), or telling twelve-bar blues from waltz (stuff like 4/4, 5/4, etc.), or Schönberg's twelve-tone system, or atonality ("horror film" sounds, sounding like a mental patient fiddling around with instruments, aren't they?), but I'm eternally grateful to my father who always played classical music at our home when I was a child. These were a major part of my unformal musical education, and I'm still familiar with how a certain piece of music goes, even though I couldn't exactly name it or its composer.

Time to return back to earth. As to the more practical and day-to-day concerns of pursuing this trade, often I worry if my musical ambitions are just a pipe dream after all. For all my life I've tripped, stumbled and fallen to find something that would be "me", gotten exited about various things only to desert them sooner or later (or to be more precise, they have deserted me).

So, I couldn't have helped thinking if it all only ends up like thousands of other hopefuls who tried their luck in music business (and face it, business it is in the end of the day, whatever the pretensions of "art" or doing it "just for the love of music") and never came to anything. If it is only hubris on my part, and "the harder they come, the harder they fall". I do my utmost not to think about that. Whatever, me and Mike Not are not becoming any younger, and it's better to try now than to spend our old days regretting about the lost lifetimes. From the feedback we’ve received from around the world so far, at least we think we are on the right track.

I believe work itself is its own justification. "Work is the thing, work is everything", Andy Warhol said. I think with Mike Not we have created something worthwhile, a small body of work already, which will last whether it was a big "hit" or not. Something I'm sure people will find sooner or later –- one only has to have some faith, really.

When once asked who else he would like to be if he wasn't Andy Warhol, Warhol answered: "I would like to be Donald Duck". And why not. Our feathered hero keeps on trying, pushing, however hard the knocks. I will never forget this Donald Duck comics I read as a kid where Donald fails in a running competition only to be reminded by his little nephews, wise and mature for their age, that it is not the most important thing to win but that you do your best.