Monday, July 18, 2011

All squares are rectangles but you should feel ashamed.

A few weeks ago, I popped a question to Twitter while "Stenven Rheinsberg" and I were plunking away at Dotdotdotmusic: What is different about songwriting as compared/contrasted with composing?

Blam, blam, blam, blam! The @ replies came pouring in. By the end of the conversation, I'd received around 60 responses. Almost all addressed matters of form: songs are shorter, the importance is more likely to be placed on the text/lyrics rather than on the development of the music. And, from what I could tell, everyone believed the two have a square-rectangle relationship: all songwriters are composers but not all composers are songwriters. OK. But there was something else that I was getting at that wasn't being answered.

So I asked a second question: What do you, as a listener/fan, want and expect from a song or singer-songwriter versus a composition or a composer? And a third question: Your favorite songwriter is who and why?

The line went dead. What had been 30 minutes of rapid fire tweeting came to a sudden halt. A colleague dropped out of the conversation, noting that the topic was "weirdly incendiary" (great way to put it) and he didn't want to be attacked (again) for his musical tastes. After a bit of nudging, a small handful of folks did respond (and thank you to those who did) but I'm going to pause right here for a moment.

Take a walk with me. I was raised in a religious sect that believes instrumental music in worship is wrong. God only likes a cappella. Dancing is a sin because it might cause your brother to lust after your body. The same goes for wearing shorts or skirts above the knee, tank tops, tight or low-cut clothing. Not only is it a sin to drink alcohol, it is also (to some) shaky ground to go to a restaurant that serves alcohol because what if your brother sees you there and thinks you're drinking and it causes him to stumble. My grandparents didn't come to my wedding and, though the reason I was given had something to do with a bad back, I am fairly certain it was because my wedding reception had both drinking and dancing (neither compulsory, by the way, but nevermind). I heard sermons on the sin of anger and, once, on the sin of depression. So it is not only a sin to do certain acts, it is a sin to even think about doing them or to cause someone else to think about doing them, and it is a sin to have certain emotional responses. All of this is to say: I am familiar with the use of dogma and shame in order to force and protect community (groupthink). The hours and hours of four-part a cappella shape-note singing were positively heavenly, but at some point my heart could not rejoice in the music-making for all the endless red-foreheaded frothy-mouthed dogmatic hair-splitting arguments among the men. (Women do not have the authority to speak publicly on such matters.)

Cut back to scene. I left this religiously dogmatic community with its rules about acceptable and unacceptable music, and while, for the most part, I have found the professional music community to be omnivorous, I am fascinated and disappointed when I see the use of of dogma and shame regarding musical output or taste. Depending on the decade and source, I've observed that it is/has been wrong/shameful to write or to like: expressive music, modernist music, mainstream music, beautiful music, atonal music, sincere music, ugly music, pop music, new music, catchy music, old music, music that doesn't take itself seriously enough, music that takes itself too seriously, it goes on. And the shaming! The snubbing! The snark! A famous example is when Ned Rorem wrote that "nobody really likes the music of Elliott Carter: his many admirers only pretend to like it." But I also see it on blogs that tell me what bands I ought to be embarrassed by and which artists I should feel guilty listening to. Then, of course, there's the ritual one-upping and slamming amongst commenters who pronounce things to be "overrated" and "underrated" (for lack of any better vocabulary?).


Whenever I read a tweet, comment, blog post, or review that claims someone else's music or musical taste is Wrong/Shameful, I wonder by what dogma this is being measured. But more than that, I just don't care.You'll forgive me if I maxed out on dogmatic arguments and shame many many years ago. This house is clean.

That is not to say that I do not value critical listening or rigorous discussion. I learned what that looks like early in my days at Boosey & Hawkes. I once made a dismissive comment regarding a certain composer's music and I was swiftly and kindly corrected. "Nope. That's not what we do here." The staff, led by Jenny Bilfield, was a group of people with extraordinary listening talent. People who loved a broad range of music, supported creativity, and who had the uncommon ability to hear music thoroughly and deeply for what it is, rather than for what it is not. In our listening sessions, music was never dismissed. The question was never "Is this music good or bad?" The questions were: "What do you hear in these sounds? What did the composer set out to do/say? Did s/he achieve that end effectively? What is interesting/special/significant about this? Who would find this interesting and why?"

With so much else to talk about, there's not much room left for shaming. So I will answer my own questions about songwriting. I love songs and songwriters because they provide a soundtrack to my life and put words on experiences that I had not considered. I love singing along. I love Patty Griffin's story-telling, her raw illustrations and elaborate articulations of American life from the eyes of clearly defined characters. I love Paul Simon's poetry, his unpredictable phrasing that dangles, the worlds he captures via instrumentation and meter in Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. I love Rufus Wainwright's sloppy drunk voice, the theatrics, his careless way of progressing through remote chords. But most of all, I love the songwriters I do because of their honesty, their vulnerability, their intimacy.

Still, the time came for me a few years ago when other songwriters' words were no longer saying for me what I wanted to say for myself. And so I've picked up my pen in hopes of putting my own words and songs on my life, voicing my own truths, telling my own stories. As I write and record homemade demos I am trying to keep only the good questions in mind. Questions that bring me forward rather than stopping me in my tracks. What am I hearing? Am I being honest? Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable? What am I trying to say/do here? What do I need to do to say it most effectively?

But most importantly, I am shamelessly enjoying doing it and sharing it. Because this woman has given herself the authority to sing honestly and publicly on such matters.


  1. Lovely post!

    Personally, I dropped out of the conversation because 140 characters is woefully insufficient. Honest conversation devoid of snark and glib one liners is what this topic deserves, and that's one of the things that twitter doesn't do well.

  2. I think this goes beyond music. People have an instinct toward tribalism - we just naturally divide the world into groups and dislike the groups we're not part of. For example, psychologists have found that if you tell people to guess how many marbles are in a jar, and then say, "oh, you're an overestimator. People tend to either guess high or low, and you tend to guess high," those people will then go on to be nicer to anyone else you identify as an overestimator, and to behave worse toward underestimators.

    That said, one of my friends has told me that for something to be a "Craig song" it needs to have a strong narrative line. And I really like it when the lead vocalist sings the lyrics while the backup vocalist yells the same lyrics.

  3. Sounds just like my background (Mennonite...). The acapella was great, the guilt not so much. :)

    I do both songwriting with words, and composing, without. I've always found it a funny dichotomy, too. I've written some instrumental stuff that is very pop-song-ish, and some compositions with vocals that aren't structured like a pop tune at all. It's all composition, but I use the label "songwriting" when it's a piece that people can relate in the same way as other, well, songs. Somehow, a composition that frames itself around a vocal melody that delivers interesting words can reach people in a way that instrumental music only rarely can.

    In songwriting, I feel like the goal is a direct emotional connection, with as little to distract it as possible. In instrumental compositions, I'm more into exploring byways and trying new things, while still keeping a handle on the connection.

    At any rate, good luck with the songs.

  4. Always love reading your blog :) Not to mention, no one has described Rufus better. Love ya!

  5. Really enjoyed reading your blog and hearing your songs...will be back!

  6. I have no idea what the differences are between songwriters and composers. But when I think of musical compositions, I think of instrumental music that accompanies film. Songs usually have lyrics, and while they might accompany other media, they often don't. Probably the most uneducated response to that question you will receive. :)

    Favorite songwriter is Harry Chapin. His songs often tell stories about people who have come to a critical emotional decision. And I think he has such a command of language that none of his lyrics seem forced. And his band has a cello.

    That aside, I love a song (or instrumental composition) with lots of drums, like the beginning of Sing Sing Sing. Makes me wanna drive fast. :)