Nevermind The Posers

See ya in the pit.

The Musical Creative Process April 22, 2011

By Sean Davis

Musicians take a variety of approaches to composition; in the world of popular music alone several schools of thought inform the process of song writing.  John Lennon insisted on writing meaningful, poetic lyrics bathed in metaphors and expression; while Paul McCartney’s focus was on musical precision, making sure every note was carefully planned and perfectly executed.  McCartney was well-known for filling in melodies with nonsensical syllables, replacing them with words later (and often with John’s aid).  This compositional discontinuity is found not only in modern popular styles, but also throughout all western musical history.  Chopin was famous for laboring over minute details for hours, trying to discover the perfect combination of tones.  Monteverdi believed in the concept of text dictating the flow and direction of the music, going so far as to break the fundamental rules governing musical composition at the time.  Regardless of how one composes, the end result will almost always beg questions from listeners.  What inspired such and such song?  What did you mean by this lyric?  I really love the chords in that song, where did you come up with that?  It is these questions, and more, that spawned the fields of musical criticism, music theory, and continue to guide people into a musical life.  The problem with such questions, however, is that the creative process is almost always just as unique as the individual creator; there is no blanket truth we can ascribe to song-writers and composers that will reveal an objective musical process for creating good music.  What we can discover through analytical and historic study, are commonalities that might provide useful insight into how we can discover our own unique musical identities.  By understanding what aided those who came before us, we can capitalize on that information, and possibly use it to enhance the evocative powers of our own compositions.

Let us examine the two different approaches used by Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both systems, which is probably why the music that came from the collaboration between these two was so expressive.  Lennon’s practice of allowing the text do the work for you is not new, as mentioned earlier the baroque composer Monteverdi famously claimed that the music should follow the expressive motions of the text.  This idea can create wonderfully striking relationships with the listener, every word reflected in some musical gesture; we see this notion take form in Lennon’s famous single “Imagine,” the harmony is relatively simple, however the focus on major 7ths and circuitous, repetitive progressions signify a dream-like, ethereal atmosphere.  We can surmise from Lennon’s view on composition that he probably wrote the words first, and then crafted the music around them, trying to match the emotions he felt were in the lyrics.  Composing like this is effective for many, however it does exhibit a few pitfalls.  When the music takes a subordinate role to lyrics, very often it fails to express all that it can.  In other words, the music may not live up to its full potential.  I may be crucified for suggesting this, but in my opinion this dilemma is the main problem with the music of Bob Dylan.  Lyrically speaking, his songs are evocative, poetic and worthy of great praise; however, the music is stale, boring, and goes on far too long without variation.  Also, many times when the words predate the music, it can be difficult to find a way to seamlessly integrate the text with the musical syntax.  Clunky transitions, awkward phrases and misconception of text are often the result of a poor marriage between lyrics and music.

Paul McCartney approached song-writing from a different point of view, he would sweat over the harmony or melody of a song long before even considering the words.  When a composer or song-writer creates in this manner the instrumental aspect of the music tends to be just as important, if not more so than the words.  Focusing on the purely musical allows for a wider range of expression and interaction between musical devices, thus increasing the music’s ability to signify deep and meaningful concepts.  When listening to the opening bars of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” one can commiserate with the singer’s confusion and dejection.  The progression sequences down by fifths, cycling through all of the chords in A minor.  The descending lines coupled with the interaction of the piano chord voices evoke a musical atmosphere separate from the lyrics.  When we finally hear the words, the music has already set the scene for us, coloring our interpretation from the onset.  These kinds of expressive devices come from a learned set of syntactical symbols, arranged in various ways to extract an emotional (or physical, or psychological, etc…) response.  Most people are familiar in some way with how most songs unfold: two or more contrasting sections presented with lyric alteration guiding the listener from beginning to end.  Of course there are any number of variations on this framework; the fact is that because we know what to expect, due to exposure to these symbols over and over again (via radio, television, dance clubs, internet, etc…), we develop a sense of music’s ability to signify.  The skilled composer and/or song-writer has such an understanding of these symbols that she/he is able to utilize them to either fulfill, or stifle, an expectation.  However, ignoring the capacity of lyrics to resonate with individuals can cause even the most well-constructed songs to fail to connect.  Sometimes when composers, especially song-writers, place too much emphasis on the instrumental and non-verbal in their songs the listener is left with a vague wash of expression devoid of any real form.  In the worst case scenario the words and music are almost contradictory, would anyone have listened to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” if the title was “Please don’t hurt or murder me,” and the lyrics grim depictions of armed robbery and muggings?  The imagery of the words would not have matched the imagery of the music.  This kind of extreme case rarely occurs, however poorly worded songs can cause a disconnect with the listener.  Musical creators do not want poetic lyrics with drab music, or poetic music with drab lyrics, the true artist finds a medium between the two, balancing the forces and dipping one way or the other as the situation calls.

It is our job as musicians to learn from these techniques, and to use them to further enhance musical expression.  The famous axiom “you must learn to walk before you can run” rings true here, for we must learn the language of musical signification before we can create artful music, capable of expressing our most intimate thoughts and desires.  Want to be a rock-star?  Want to write the next great song, and not the next hit pop-tune, but the next “Erlkönig” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”?  Then your greatest assets are your ears, listen to as much music as possible, and to the greatest variety of music possible.  Learn the symbols and how they manifest themselves in music, use that knowledge to your advantage to create new styles and new symbols, and music will continue to grow in expressive capacity.


Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Cross May 5, 2010

A review by: Alexander “Stigz” Castiglione

When you hear the name “Jimi Hendrix,” a lot of words pop into mind.

Rock Legend.  Guitar-God.  Iconic figure of the Peace & Love movement.  Poet.  Pauper.  Druggie.  Fashionista.

But after reading this book, it’s easy to see that these words and phrases only scratch the surface of the enigmatic and magnetic man that was James Hendrix.

Following a meteoric rise to fame in less than a decade, this burning star was extinguished at the young age of 27.  Ironically and tragically, the same age Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain were when they died.

Being a huge fan of Jimi since I was a kid, there are a lot of items in this book I found interesting, some parts were inspiring while other parts were abhorrent.  The first hundred pages or so are the latter, illustrating his underprivileged and unstable childhood in the Northwest.  With the volatility of alcoholic parents and poverty surrounding him, Jimi never had it easy.  Most people don’t know that Jimi escaped this by going into the Army.  Or rather, he was given a “choice:” go to jail for joyriding in a stolen car, or go into the service.  He opted for the service and soon figured a way to make it out of the Army (which I’ll let you read to find out).  Most people don’t know about his drug bust in Canada, or how exactly The Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed.  This book answers all these enigmas and then some.

A Room Full Of Mirrors is a splendid synthesis of hundreds of interviews with family and friends, clips from music journals, and even some letters he wrote to his family.  Rarely does a biography make you feel like you know the person.  Not just the where’s and when’s of a life, but the how this person really was—their quirks, fears, mannerisms and eccentricities.  In that respect, Cross is a genius, as many of his anecdotes make you feel like your right there with Jimi.  From he and bassist Noel Redding being confused for clowns in an English pub, to Jimi partying with Leonard Nemoy- Yes, Leonard Nemoy—Spock from Star Trek, we get a feel for who Jimi was as a person.  All the way from his naïve early days playing back-up guitar for Little Richard to his overnight success in England, we are with Jimi on his entire struggle for fame and recognition.  Despite his antics on stage with blazing Stratocasters and epic guitar solos, he actually was an extremely shy man-something many pieces leave out.  From his voracious sexual appetite and phone-book size list of conquests to his professions to his Aunt Delores about his disgust with fame and the limelight, every facet of his persona is fleshed out in under 400 pages.

What I really like about the book is the fact that Jimi’s prolific drug use isn’t played up and sensationalized like other pieces, but rather Cross aims to take us into Jimi’s mind.  Within this “room full of mirrors” we see how Jimi viewed himself, cared for his family and lived like every day was his last.  From his stellar performance at Woodstock (where he subsequently collapsed from exhaustion after leaving the stage, since he had been up for 3 days straight), to being booed offstage early in his career on the Chitlin’ Circuit, this book doesn’t highlight the controversial and leave out the mundane.  It covers everything, going back to his father’s father in the first few pages.  The family history part of the book is rather dull at points, but vital to understanding most of the story in the long run.  In many ways, the novel pays homage to the notion that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

I could go on for days saying how intriguing and timeless Jimi’s life was and how tragic his death was in the end, but I figured I’d give you a few facts I walked away from the book with.  Most people don’t know this, but Jimi is probably one of the most interconnected and dynamic people to come out of the music industry.  He earned the love and respect of Eric Clapton and Cream, while literally having them scared shitless of playing a show with him for fear of being upstaged.  The same sentiment was held by Mick Jagger and the Stones.  Jimi also tried to date Keith Richards’ girlfriend, and the two legends almost had it out one night.  He even, in a monumentally ballsy move, played his own covers from The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album with Lennon and McCartney in the crowd at the Monterey Music Festival only a few days after the album was released.  McCartney came up to him and told him how solid his take on the song was.  Even the legendary Bob Dylan loved Jimi’s rendition on “All Along The Watchtower,” and it is extremely hard for musicians to give credit to another musician for playing a cover.  In a few short years, Jimi went from wearing loud, sequin suits behind Little Richard, to headlining Woodstock and being the highest paid musician in the world.  And yes, boys and girls, Jimi’s junk was cast in plaster long before any other rock star, kick-starting the rock star debauchery way before Mötley Crüe was on the scene.  And the biggest shock of all: Lemmy of Motorhead was a roadie for Hendrix at one point.  Yes, Lemmy Kilmister used to haul Jimi’s gear.

Another interesting tidbit: Janis Joplin and Jimi were rumored to have banged it out at the Fillmore.  And, even more badass, while Jim Morrison was heckling Jimi one night in the Village, Joplin smashed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s over The Doors front-man’s head.  The raging irony is that these three superstars and brilliant musicians all ended up dying within a year of each other.

For the casual Hendrix fan, this book may not be a good choice, as it really gets detailed and in-depth, even mundane at some points.  But for anyone who loves the music, culture, and times from when Jimi (and his contemporaries like Clapton, Jagger, Joplin, Lennon, McCartney and Morrison) came, you will absolutely devour this book.  Cross paints a picture so clear, so unique, so detailed, that you feel as if you knew the Voodoo Child himself.  From his rowdy early years as a child to his stint in the army to his stellar rise to the top of all things musical, this book leaves no stone unturned, no detail unmentioned, and no room for anything but awe of this brilliant man’s tragically short life.


Who dat? February 9, 2010

Quick Thoughts by Gregory Swindasz

Did you see that stage at the Super Bowl?  It was amazing; the whole thing was a display screen.  And those fire works!  The half-time show looked so great, truly stunning. But who was on that great amazing stage?

Oh that’s right The Who; who dat?
Dat who, The Who.

In all seriousness, legendary band The Who took the Super Bowl half-time stage this year, and while the stage itself has never looked better, the performance was a little lacking.  And there’s much to say about this stage.  Once occupied with the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.  Or how about the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney.  Yes, the Super Bowl half-time stage has hosted some amazing legends in its time.

It’s truly a shame that today all I can remember or think about is the stage.  The Who’s performance was not up to par.  They sounded tired and winded at times.  I did like that they went through their best songs including “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”  It really wasn’t an amazing performance.  At least it was an amazing stage.