Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Thoughts on Words & Music Inspired By A Recent Piece by Ed Berrigan

 One question I often want to ask songwriters: do the words come first, or the melody, or groove? Many seem not to want to give away “trade secrets” (perhaps for the sake of mystique?). I was thus especially happy to read Ed Berrigan’s March 11thblog-post (“Navigating the Distance Between Music and Poetry”[1]) , as he shared some of his discoveries on his path to find a way to bring what he loves about poetry (for instance, “cut-ups, absurdity, and displacement”) into the formal strictures of song….Rather than choose, say, the way Mark E. Smith (or other avant-poppists) fracture song-structure as an exemplary model to strive for, Berrigan makes an excellent case for the kind of disjunctions found in a Willie McTell song, in a beautiful act of cross-genre syncretism, in ways that sees the genres not in any hierarchal relationship, but as equals.

I’ve always felt a special kinship with people who come to poetry first (especially post-Donald Allen anthology American, generally non-rhyming, or formal in the sense that most stanzaic song lyrics are), but then later become more devoted to music, or back and forth, “simultaneously,” in that liminal zone where genres wonder if they need border walls (or Venn diagrams), and, if so, why? And, of course, there’s seemingly infinite possibilities in exploring this, despite the perils of an overly specialized society…..[2]

There are many things I can relate to in Ed’s account. Little things, like not being shy about doing poetry readings at a young age, but very shy about performing music, or having to keep his ambition to write songs “secret” among his poet friends. Like Ed, I already had a public reputation as a poet before I took songwriting seriously. And like me, he found it difficult to create the kind of “dynamics I could create in my poetic lines” in the more emotional structures of song. I can also relate to taking poems of others and setting them to music. On the Single-Sided Doublesalbum, I set a Helen Adam ballad to my own melody and appropriated words from Clark Coolidge’s minimalist early book,Polaroid. I realized that Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme By William Carlos Williams” works as a cute waltz (KK told me he likes McCartney, but not Dylan); maybe I should revisit my unrecorded little English “music hall” (sung with fun mock accent) variation of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, for comic relief. Do these songs do the poems justice? Perhaps not, but maybe I should try it again…(I think I’d rather be in a band to back up a great writer like we did with Delia Tramontina…..but I digress….)

I can also relate to finding it much more difficult to write song lyrics than poetry (and something tells me that it probably would’ve been easier to write lyrics hadn’t I been into poetry, or if I enjoyed end-stopped rhyming poetry as much on the page). And I, too, got frustrated and so began to look at poems I had written on the page, and tried to fit them to music, and the subsequent difficulties that strategy results in, the realization that “the writing wasn’t structured for melodic singing.” (6)

I especially love when Berrigan gets into a nut-and-bolts discussion, in such passages as:

“Refining the melody line to fit the musical structure still required many repetitions. I’d need to play a song dozens of time to refine the melody, and it was a struggle to edit the lyrics.”

At this point in his journey, he switches his compositional strategy, and stops writing lyrics in advance:

“In songs, the emotional resonance could be performed through the singing and the musical phrasing. In order to arrive at this naturally, the musical and lyrical generation both needed to happen spontaneously. I could pick a lyrical device, such as using the phrase "Goodbye Forever," a title of a poem by Steve Carey, as an alternating refrain. But rather than write it out, I'd pick a starting chord, hit record on a recording device, and create the song on the spot. If no words came, I'd sing out the shape of the lyrical line so that a more a natural syllabic structure was in place. From there I could gradually edit the words into a more coherent shape, with the syllable limits already determined. This also allowed room for the coherence to be tenuous.”

I love that tenuous coherence is the goal. I’ve come to a similar point in songwriting---with one possible exception. Though I hold it as a goal, I rarely, if ever, “create the song on the spot.” A template perhaps, but it would turn into something like:

“Goodbye forever, don’t know it won’t do nothing that is under down on blah blah top
Goodbye, till never, forgot if slop is shopping or if it only went to market just to rot….
DRUM. Goodbye forever my mind. DRUM. Goodbye forever my heart. 
DRUM. Goodbye forever clean break, DRUM ain’t that a good place to start
Clocks don’t tell time, but time don’t listen anyway….

(I love the melody though, so hopefully better words arrive…)

In Ed’s account of his creative journey, he generally started from the words, while I generally started from the music. It was only after I had recorded hundreds of simple, but catchy, vocal melodies (often made while on walks, bike rides, or swings) that either were sung as phonemes, or “dummy lyrics” (as a respite from the word rigor of poetry), that I considered the possibility that I should write words to them. Most of the melodies of songs from a 2001 (“debut”) collection of my songs came from at least 10 years earlier. And sometimes I think I should record some of these “phoneme” or “dummy lyrics”---but on the contrary sometimes I think I revise too much, and I could get tangled in the discrepancy between my standards and abilities (it’s a lot harder to write lyrics, when you don’t have a regular practice space, because you need to hear your actual voice, and not the voice in your head). Vexed, I say (or call it the blues….I’m another white guy who loves playing blues too….), and I, too, have a lot to learn!!

Just to say, thank you Ed Berrigan. I deeply appreciate your candor; you have both given me a lot to think about and made me feel less crazy & alone, and if you want to correspond about such stuff in the future, I’d be game (frankly, I believe there should be a book, especially after something Jasmine Dreame Wagner recently wrote, and listening to Nada Gordon sing her songs….and thinking about the struggles my multi-genre heroes and sheroes, this book could also include those who publish poetry, or other genres, but, as musicians, work in the non-verbal trenches, more as instrumentalists….more on this later…..)

[2]I’m generally less interested in those who became known as musicians and then publish a book of poetry. Most examples I’ve seen, the poems on the page seem to be more like outtakes from their lyrics—I never really cared much for Robert Hunter as songwriter, but he struck me as an exception in this regard, as he acknowledged when he published his first book of poetry late in life that he was still a novice as a poet, with a humility and devotion to the craft I found rare.

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