I have an occasional practice of covering… recomposing?… arranging?… songs by favorite songwriters. The latest essay is this set of five songs by Martha Scanlan, which I call A Following Wind.
(the title is from The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald translation: “Grey-eyed Athena stirred them a following wind, soughing from the north-west on the winedark sea, and as he felt the wind, Telemakhos called to all hands to break out mast and sail…”)
This was a fairly similar approach to what I did with Bob Dylan songs for The Moon Was Just Coming Over The Hills. In both cases I started with the lyrics, copied by hand onto a blank sheet of paper. I sang the melodies more or less as is, while creating new music at the piano. The level of reinvention varies. My Charlemagne Palestine/Velvet Underground drone cover of “Going to Acapulco” features some pretty standard chords on the chorus; “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” gets totally fresh harmony.
Perhaps most dramatically, in 2014 I arranged Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” for soprano Carrie Henneman-Shaw and Spektral Quartet. I wound some pretty out-there harmony and complex rhythms into that cover. (The groove shifts between 19/16, 15/16, and 11/16.)
Actually, though the music is simpler, I think the Martha Scanlan project is a more radical reinvention. Because removing the acoustic guitar from her music sort of violates a premise, and trading piano for Rhodes accentuates the ghostliness.
There are two big payoffs in this process. For one thing, I’m able to more precisely locate my own musical personality by taking a preexisting thing I know and love, stripping most of it away and then seeing what’s still there. I try to do very little. So I also end up getting at what’s essential in the song. In these three instances that means separating the singer-songwriter’s performance practice from the “composition”—whatever that is.
I’m thinking of an interview with producer Jon Brion in which he drew a distinction between a “song” and a “performance piece.” The idea is that a song’s distinct identity is in its melody and chord changes, which are limber enough to be reinvented in a different musical context. A “performance piece” is compositionally bare-bones, merely a scaffolding for a dynamic performance situation.
As examples of proper songs he offers George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Nirvana’s “Lithium.” Melody, chord change, and lyric are out front. He demonstrates them at the piano. No singing, no other instruments, and you still have a satisfying musical experience. Example of a performance piece: Led Zeppelin—he doesn’t name titles, but one supposes he’s thinking of a tunes like “Rock and Roll” and “Immigrant Song.” He’s not denigrating the Zep—he loves them too—but he suggests that what we love is not the song but the specific performance on the record.
Of course, like all sharp artistic distinctions this one is an oversimplification if not truly a lie; there are obvious critiques to be made. In these examples, he is ignoring differences in the notions of composition, text, and authorship that exist between the Euro-American songwriting tradition (from Schubert to Gershwin to Cobain) and the complex set of performance practices that comprise the blues.
But is it a useful oversimplification? Is it true, sometimes? Can text vanish into performance until it isn’t a composition anymore, in any meaningful or transferable sense?
By subjecting Martha Scanlan’s songs to this process, I’m asking the question. Are these songs or performance pieces? My work is figuring out how to answer “songs.”
And it isn't the chord changes. One of the easiest ways to make these songs mine is to jettison the chord progressions. This isn’t a surprise; much acoustic, folk, country, western music is built on pat harmonic structures that are not, in isolation, much of a hint at the deep meaning of the performance. For these songs and my process, it’s the lyrics—and the melodies that make them recognizable. That’s what I keep. Then the harmony and rhythm I get to have fun with.
I’ll give you my own comparison, not between a putative song and a “performance piece” or anything textually lesser, but between two songs I love for very different reasons. One is Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s incomparable “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” If the word “perfect” can ever be applied to a song, surely it is appropriate here. The song is so beautifully structured, with that bass line that creeps up chromatically, that melody that swings between a rising chromatic line to a sultry static “Ti-Do”—and then in the bridge, the line shifts to falls downward—a step down followed by a leap down, the isolated Fa resolves down to Mi in the next bar (“He is COLD, I ag-REE”) and it all ties up pretty nicely, contrapuntally speaking, before the stepwise swing up to an apex at that Re (“Although the LAUGH’s on me”) that we revisit at the very end (“bewil-DERED am I”). Tie it up in a fucking bow. Perfect.
Then there is Martha Scanlan’s “Hallelujah,” which features no similar harmonic or melodic subtlety. If you wrote out a lead sheet it would look pretty dull. We’re in I-IV-V town—but Martha happens to be the sheriff. She empties her six-shooter each verse, and every time, the bullets of those six lines hit the center of the target as three beautiful couplets. These are incendiary lyrics. They give you as much you need to tell a story to yourself without providing that extra detail that would prove it isn’t about you. And I’ve found that even when I remove her singing—when I sing this song with other people, or when I sing it by myself with the Rhodes—there’s still enough there. It doesn’t take you on a journey like “Bewitched.” It floats. I, IV, and V are the click, the clickety, and the clack of the train wheels, and the train isn’t stopping until it reaches the coast—or home, wherever that is.
1. The best we can expect from a work of art is transcendence. The second best is permission, which is actually sometimes better.
2. An idea for an ambitious artistic project is like an idea for a tattoo. It’s probably best to ignore it at first, but if it doesn’t go away for a year or two, you may have to deal with it.
3. Is there any correlation between good art and bad behavior? What about artistic breakthroughs and reckless choices? Or maybe creative work and some brand or another of indulgence? Asking for a friend.
3a. Well-behaved composers rarely make history.
4. Sometimes I think “album” as a genre never got past the physical capacity of the vinyl record. Forty minutes is an album. Sixty or seventy minutes is a double album. The break in the middle, after twenty minutes, helps. We could use that.
4a. It’s a rare album that can succeed for fourteen or fifteen tracks over sixty or seventy minutes without any break.
5. In composing: if it’s not fun, or beautiful, I don’t have to write it down.
6. Classical music runs on mastery; new music runs on, well, novelty. Will these things always leave us wanting more? We’ll never be masters enough, and new things get old.
6a. I’m moving toward a model less about mastery, more about work. Less about being good, more about doing good.
6b. About telling the truth without apology.
7. I’m amazed that anyone can spend a long time working on weird music and not have it reconfigure their ideas about lifestyle.
8. A while back I decided it would be a good marketing choice, when making initial descriptions of myself as a musician, not to use the word “composer.” Lately I’m thinking, when people ask what kind of music I make, I should try to avoid the word “weird.” For me there is a smile in that word. But for some, it may sound like I’m giving them an excuse.
9. Work on music for long enough and you’re going to end up doing some serious thinking about what time is.
10. Let’s all agree to stop clapping between solos, start clapping between movements, and take it easy with the standing ovations.
11. It’s funny when a nonprofit starts acting like “growth” is important, because the people on its board are capitalists. A nonprofit is not supposed to grow, except incidentally. It is supposed to follow its mission. Similarly it is possible for an individual to be nonprofit in a capitalist context. Many of my friends are this way. They have a mission and they behave with relative consistency according to that mission. We don’t aim at profit. We hope, perhaps, that profit will find us.
12. RIP Tony Conrad. This must be the most intense Plagal cadence I’ve ever heard.
• “Moon River” is a great enough song that it makes you want to drop everything and watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is not a great movie. Alternate argument: “Moon River” is such a great song that it can carry a flawed movie all by itself. Alternate argument: Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great movie, but not a good one.
• “Country Roads” is inescapable, irrepressible, undeniable; but listening to John Denver sure makes you want to do those things (escape, repress, deny), because the performance is just so overwhelmingly square. Clarification: I actually kind of love this song. But ohhh, every bar of that chorus, beats two and three just last forever.
• Comparison: Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Now, this song is questionable; but unquestionably, it is not square. Here is a drummer who knows how to play some quarter notes. Wikipedia research uncovers his name—Paul Garrison—but not much else.
• Beach Boys: unassailable. Takes over the room.
• Rod Stewart “Have I Told You Lately”: how is it possible that I did not know this was a Van Morrison song? Stewart’s cover appeared only four years after the original. This live version from MTV is unbelievable. (I mean that literally—not in the colloquial of sense of “unbelievably good”—just simply unbelievable.) Look at him work that mic. Those GESTURES. And the GUITAR SOLO. And the FASHION CHOICES. And the fucking FLOWERS. Unbelievable.
• Above thoughts perhaps explain why I’m no longer able to productively work at coffee shops.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts