Songwriting, like all art forms, is a never ending dance in which each of us works to continuously perfect our steps. As I write new songs, my process is to make recordings of them and place those recordings in a folder on my computer. Once I've done this I walk away from them and wait to see how they feel to me with the passage of time. Invariably, there are those that stand out, begging to see the real world, and those that are destined to live out their lives in that folder, never to be played again or heard by another human being. I wonder about that folder and I wonder about those songs, the ones that don’t seem to pass the test of time. What is it that distinguishes one from the other?
I recently heard John Hockenberry describe multidimensionality as "complexity and ... simplicity living together in tension and release." This statement reminded me of some of my favorite paintings and poems, and certainly some of my favorite songs. After all, a creation’s ability to communicate with both subtlety and depth is what allows it to stand the test of time. A work that embodies this approach is destined to find a larger audience and communicate in more healing tones. Yes, I said “healing” tones; in the end, what else is art for? True, there are works of art that seek to shock, to evoke controversy, or to foster dissension, but from my (admittedly idealistic) vantage point, true creation is aimed at reminding people of what it is that unites them, not what divides them. If art that unites is the goal, multidimensional or “fractal” thinking makes for a good starting point.
THE MYSTERY OF Timeless SONGWRITING - should we just use the force?
So what does the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, have to do with songwriting anyway? At first glance, nothing, but when examined closely, J.J. Abrams' masterpiece may teach us quite a bit. In analyzing this question we must consider one of the more controversial elements of the film. I'm not referring to Rey’s spontaneous transformation into a Jedi who defeats her more seasoned opponent, which has proven to be quite controversial. If you're hung up on this point try watching the movie again while asking yourself, “how much power is a dark lord who can barely contain the light within himself actually capable of wielding?” No, this scene is far from erroneous, and to miss the point of it is to miss the point of the film, and its title (one man's opinion).
The controversy I'm referring to is the incredible similarity between this, the latest installment of the series, and Star Wars: A New Hope. While many people--myself included--applauded the effort, there were those who complained that while he produced a tremendous film, J.J. Abrams simply remade the original Star Wars. However, this is not something I believe occurred by accident, and for my part it represents the true brilliance of the film and illustrates what it may have to teach those of us in the arts. To appreciate the greater beauty of the film one must let go of their hatred and fear (couldn't resist), and consider the movie not as a copy of the original, but as a fractal representation of the original.
A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. -Google
True, Abrams could have chosen to create entirely new story lines which bore no resemblance to the original, but that's not how life works, is it? Children resemble their parents, history repeats itself and, although we don’t yet understand why, we’ve observed unequivocally that all of creation proceeds in self-similar fractal patterns, each installment tuned for its particular place in time and space. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I would contend, does the same.
The film revisits a tale we're all familiar with, but adapts it to speak directly to the struggles of the present day. Militarism and the role of women in society are issues placed front and center, and gone are the days of the black hat and the white hat, as primary characters are no longer portrayed with such indulgent naïveté. None of us are purely good or evil, and neither are our heroes, and that’s ok, that's what it means to be human, right?
In choosing the path he did, Abrams assured the purity of the Star Wars epic would be restored, at least temporarily, and allowed it to ascend to a higher plane of artistic achievement. This latest release transforms the series, when viewed as a whole, into the realm of kinetic art, which expresses itself in time and motion. By adhering to this fractal evolution the series is able to teach us something about the universe we live in and the lives we lead, that is, if we’re willing to look at it from a certain point of view. “A certain point of view?” (again...could not resist) Instead of inventing new themes and story lines distinct from those many of us fell in love with as children, the reboot makes the old themes relevant to the kids of today, as well as to us adults.
THE MYSTERY OF Timeless SONGWRITING - our songs should know themselves
In considering how this relates to songwriting we must first consider the very nature of reality and truth, not in any complex sense, but in the most basic sense. The Greeks gave us the expression “know thyself,” and I believe that expression to be as relevant to this era of human evolution as any other, and perhaps much more so. It may have been in this spirit that Townes Van Zandt penned:
Just as we must know ourselves, not as the world would define us, but as our heart is defining us in the present moment, so must the songs we write know themselves. It’s our job to help them do that, and the task is meant for no one else. Many will engage committees or artistic truisms for this purpose, but for the most part it is between you and your song. Timeless songs can't be forced and they won't be negotiated with. I understand that there are no hard fast rules, and there are plenty of exceptions, but do you really think it's a coincidence that the musical genre best known for workaday songwriters who write in cubicles 40 hours a week is also best known for formulaic, cookie-cutter songs that lack authenticity? The older I get the less I believe in coincidences, and I certainly don't believe in this one.
When seeking authenticity in a song that is being written, or indeed performed, one may be well served by observing that fractal patterning is at work in music just as in the rest of creation. It's beneficial to understand that a thought or an inspiration is not nothing, but something possessing its own energy and direction, albeit ethereal. Thoughts have a form and a power of their own. If you doubt this take some time to consider the world around you: every house, every car, and every war was once just a thought in someone’s head. Some thoughts drift away untethered, others take root and spawn deeper thoughts, turning into words and deeds, and eventually manifesting themselves into physical reality.
When we are inspired to write a song or create a piece of art, it helps to be aware that the inspiration we feel is not formless, but is itself a fractal pattern with symmetry and shape that seeks to guide us throughout the creative process. It is this pattern that expands outwards and grows into worldly manifestation, and it’s our job to maintain the integrity of that unique shape as it finds greater density, just as nature does, again and again, so effortlessly. “Effortlessly” does not mean instantly, nature is quite patient in her movements, however, nature is never frustrated or confused as to how the process should unfold or what the end result will be. People who approach their craft in this way are fairly easy to spot, they're the ones others point their fingers at saying "she's a natural" or "he makes it look easy."
THE MYSTERY OF Timeless SONGWRITING - where do our songs begin and end?
The American theoretical physicist, Brian Greene, has discussed such self-similar outward resonance in terms of a French horn being played in a concert hall. Were we to view the frequency vibrations we would see similar patterns emanating through the horn, out of the bell, and expanding out into the space of the hall. Furthermore, Green states, there's a possibility that these vibrations may well resonate into unobservable dimensional space, to places we can neither observe nor even imagine. This isn't proven, but the math predicts it, and it would solve the issue of Newtonian theory and Quantum theory, which stand in direct contradiction to one another, and are yet individually verified.
Have you ever considered your art in this way, as emanating from dimensional spaces you can’t even conceive of and arriving as inspiration? Instead of conquering that inspiration, as humanity tries to do with the natural world, what if you engaged that inspiration and followed its lead to a song’s arrival, feeling your way ever forward? Additionally, it is interesting to note that timeless songs never cease their evolution, but lend themselves to varying arrangements and performance approaches from night to night, town to town, and year to year.
When I discuss music with friends or fellow songwriters, I often do so in terms of truth. This “truth” to which I refer--which is at best an illusory concept--is the music's adherence to a similar pattern at all levels. There is no formula for this kind of music. We’ve all heard it said, "if it sounds right it is right," and from an audio production standpoint this is true. I'd suggest that when it comes to songwriting, if it feels right it is right.
This type of writing can't be coached, but it doesn't need to be, we all know how to do it instinctively. When you listen to an artist you love and a shiver runs up your spine, or a certain line or moment in a song speaks to you year after year and evokes a palpable depth of feeling, that's truth. Truth is not found in rationality, it's found in emotion. When a writer learns to write from this emotional space, they begin to flirt with not just the art of writing, but the art of healing.
When a song knows itself, it becomes knowable in many other ways. Other songwriters will want to sing it, other players will more easily contribute to its recording or performance, and audiences will want to hear it. People will instinctively know how to join in. You may even hear a songwriter say “I wrote this ten years ago and I always thought it meant one thing, but today I realized what it’s really about.” That’s the thing about timeless songs, they can translate their meaning to many different people in many different stages of their lives, even to writers who fail to see that it isn't their songs that have changed, it's they that have changed.
No, it's not about perfection, perfection is at best an illusion and at worst a trap. Everything is transient, and in the end all we can do is attempt to let our songs move naturally within the space of their own chosen rhythm. Each of us has to make peace with our songs, the ones that take wing and the ones whose weight will never let them leave the ground. Still, the dance steps must continue, as we seek to create our own lives as our greatest artistic masterpiece. No, there's no such thing as perfection, at least not within this Earthly plane, but the next time you hear someone say, “the truth just sounds different,” consider for a moment that there may be something to that sentiment.
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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