Song Genesis

I’ve read about a lot of recording artists who claim to have written complete songs at the 11th hour, in absolute crunch time – indeed studio time. They’re not lying, of course, and such instances have actually produced timeless gems over the years.

Even though a simple, riff-driven song, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is said to be one of these last-minute sparks of creativity, having reportedly been written in 20 minutes. When director John Hughes decided to change the ending of his classic brat pack flick “Pretty In Pink”, the band OMD were given 24 hours to rewrite the song they had written to accompany the film’s original ending. This produced the exquisite and unforgettable “If You Leave”. When a poet friend of Franz Schubert’s once brought him a new poem to be set to music, Schubert is said to have given it just one read before declaring “I got it.”

Some people are just geniuses; some are very experienced and gifted writers of music who can tap into the Muse almost at will and mold inspiration into workable chunks on the spot… Sometimes the stars just align and all musicians involved (as in a jam or studio session) have their mojo working. Most importantly, they trust themselves enough to be sure that they’ll be OK with the material later on. These are facts and they have replayed successfully many times since the dawn of music-making.

Nevertheless, I still submit that for the rest of us mere mortal composers, such feats are far from feasible. Neither are they necessarily desirable. For the most part and almost always, any new musical idea needs to set aside for a few days before it can be properly evaluated. That’s just how the ear works; it needs the interlude in order for the subconscious to process fresh melodic information. To be sure, such new content can be perfectly fine and even ingenious but you can’t possibly make an objective assessment in the heat of the moment; you need the sobering distance of time.

I agree that there is nothing more magical and stirring than a split-second liaison with the Muse providing just the phrase we need, leaving us scrambling for notation paper or a voice recorder. But the subconscious just like the conscious mind can make musical mistakes. And our makeup also (if not primarily) consists of reason, i.e. the ability to assess and organize information logically.

A musical phrase (not to mention the motifs it is comprised of) is not just an end but also a means to an end. A composer needs to get his hands dirty and squeeze whatever he can out of every snippet, especially if the overall song doesn’t know where to go or he doesn’t yet know how to arrange the piece. Oftentimes, taking a motif and applying it elsewhere in the song or instrumentation – as in a complementary line, a recurring figure or ostinato part – improves the whole project 200%.

The result often makes you cringe at the prospect of having settled for less and rested on your laurels of apparent unadulterated inspiration. And throughout this whole process, the composer constantly needs to be putting ideas away and sleeping on them, constantly juggling inspiration, nuts and bolts application of rules and tools as well as ice cold reason and distance.

Fresh musical ideas don’t come off assembly lines ready to go. They need to brew and grow; they need to cross-pollinate …and then brew and grow again, etc. Supervising this process is essentially what music composition is about. It’s what professional creativity is all about.

Daft Punk – La belle loop

Daft Punk certainly don’t need any introduction these days. More certainly, any discussion of them doesn’t need my two cents but I feel like singing their praises today. I’ve been a fan since I was 14, a hundred years ago it seems. It was then that my older brother and I embarked on a brave journey to the local mall to purchase our first CD – Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework”. More precisely, it was our first-ever album not pre-approved by our dad or necessarily aligned with his musical tastes.

A critical analysis of Daft Punk’s oeuvre doesn’t seem necessary even now after all these years, because ever since their first big hit “Da Funk” that summer of ’97, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s music has been marked primarily by its indisputable and transcendental coolness. At first, we struggled to wrap our heads around the sheer repetitiveness of Daft Punk’s songs; looping incisively in endless multiples of four bars before introducing new instruments/sounds. These weren’t traditional songs but scantily-clad, shameless beats with simple hooks that would be difficult to maintain interest if performed on traditional instruments as opposed to synths, drum machines, samplers or vocoders. Still, we loved it. There was no denying the visceral propulsion of tracks like “Around the World,” “Phoenix,” ”Alive,” or “Indo Silver Club.”

This, of course, heralded the advent of a new era of ‘electronica’/EDM and Daft Punk were far from being the only exponents of this nascent scene. But for their sophomore effort “Discovery”, Thomas and Guy-Manuel went a little deeper into their toolboxes than most, and crafted a lot of actual songs in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This album is an important milestone in terms of the emerging retromania that would come to dominate huge swathes of the musical landscape in the early 21st century. I’m talking about the ubiquitous fetishism or morbid fixation on musical styles and idioms of the relatively recent past. As far as Daft Punk is concerned, their specialization became a quaint spin on and combination of 70s and 80s disco, funk, house and synthpop.

And even though their work begins to take on more form and musical development, the point also seems to be to evoke specific musical and cultural impressions from around the time of the French duo’s childhood. “One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Something About Us” are good examples of this more complex songwriting, whereas “High Life,” “Veridis Quo” or “Short Circuit” harken back to their tried-and-true loop-mode, with incessant figures and samples taking their time in giving way to new layers of sound. The closing piece “Too Long” is a 10-minute-long hybrid of both these worlds, the title of which appears to be Daft Punk’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of their many sins against brevity. Even with this excessive running time, the song is a guilty pleasure to listen to just as it clearly was to write…

For many fans, their third album “Human After All” seemed to be a step backward (or in the wrong direction, at any rate) with its short track-list and regression to unsparing loops and samples, which Wynton Marsalis would probably dismiss as brain-atrophying noise best suited for welders. But by this point, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had long begun to fashion a semi-backstory to their music, with their robotic alter egos clearly taking centre-stage ever since their emergence circa 2001 and rationalizing this recurrent, robotic aesthetic. (Daft Punk even released a feature film starring these robots – their second cinematic outing. They even design furniture. Yes, that’s how cool they are…) As with the abstract expressionism of a Jackson Pollock, the classic debate pitting charges of sloth and pretension against artistic vision and refined minimalism was imminent. Nevertheless, this album does not fail to bombard the listener with Daft Punk’s incomparable brand of coolness. Best songs: “Human After All,” “The Prime Time of Your Life,” “Make Love,” and “Emotion.”

And then… silence. The songwriting duo went on an 8-year hiatus. But the wait paid off for fans with the release of “Random Access Memories” last year. With this album, Daft Punk’s robotic, almost somnambulistic, towards retro-gurudom is, for all intents and purposes, complete. And it is directly analogous to their maturation as songwriters. For me, the much-trumpeted shift to traditional instruments and star-studded collaborations take a back-seat to the compositional leaps and bounds contained herein (even considering the assistance of co-writers here and there).

The whole album – save the sample-driven closer “Contact” – testifies to this. It showcases a variety of styles and approaches all culminating in outstanding songs. The French duo even fashions a few ambitiously progressive, lengthy set-pieces, though very much the antithesis of a “Too Long”, which easily could have been half its length. They even get a little solipsistic at times, but its all good because this is in keeping with much of 70s creativity. I could write for another two hours about this release, and maybe I will some other time…

So Thomas and Guy-Manuel have found their way to the source of great songcraft, even if it was in chasing a synthy disco-funk will-o’-the-wisp. These consummate masters of pastiche have actually created something derivative that is really standalone and unique. And really cool.

Pop: The Neverending Story – Part 1

There’s an on-going debate among amateur rock afficionados that pits Elvis Presley against the Beatles. It is a battle to determine which had the greater influence in the world of popular music. One thing the Fab Four camp can’t deny here is that the King predated and directly influenced the Beatles. John Lennon once said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing”… Anyway, the legacy debate can hardly be decided objectively because both Elvis and the mop tops left an unprecedented and unquantifiable legacy.

On the other hand, it’s not a case of de gustibus non est disputandum either. It’s more of a philosophical stance. When singing the Beatles’ praises, most point to their innovation; how ‘artistically important’ they were in initiating concepts such as bands writing their own material and releasing full albums of songs instead of ‘just’ churning out a steady stream of singles.

But writing one’s own music is not always necessarily a good thing, but this has at any rate become ubiquitous. Incidentally, after music publishing laws changed (around the time of the Beatles’ emergence on the scene) in 1963, the quality of songwriting dropped considerably. And long-playing albums still consist of songs which float or sink – whether artistically or on Billboard – on their own merit.

Anyway, the Beatles, it is said, basically invented psychedelic rock, ‘deep folk pop’, world music, and orchestral arrangements of rock numbers (not to mention time-honored rock traditions such as excessive drug use and hermitic career interludes in exotic countries such as India). And pointing to all of these distinctions betrays a worldview, which places great importance on art and even more on its progress… Some people do not share this philosophy and so end up favoring artists simply for excellence in doing their job.

Artists like Elvis. From the beginning, Elvis maintained that he wanted to be a ballad singer. Everything else that he became, including rock ‘n’ roll protoplast, happened unwittingly. The thing is that the King’s appeal is in his unique voice and stage persona, not in innovation. Throughout his long career, Elvis was simply a consummate professional who sold songs to the world (he did not write music), without taking himself too seriously.

An unexpected side-effect is that an artist or performer like this will often become original (and therefore ‘important’). That’s what some people want to see in their favorite artists (like me), while for others it is precisely the opposite. For some, aspiring merely to be a ballad singer as opposed to auteur of transcendental concept albums is embarrassingly unsophisitcated and uncouth; a veritable faux pas.

But this is the way it was for ages prior to the cultural upheavals of the 60s. Actually, this kind of artistic self-importance did have a precedent in the Romantic movement of the 19th century, but now it entered the realm of popular songcraft, which by definition should remain simple (which makes it popular). Whereas a lot of 60s and 70s bands seemed to go on a trip never to return to earth along with their fans, a large portion of artists held on to ‘hackneyed’ old-time conventions; namely playing agreeable tunes and selling them as a commodity first and foremost.

The numbers come in handy here (even though they don’t constitute my alpha and omega). Elvis’ chart success and sales far surpass those of the Beatles and other classic bands such as The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. What’s more, Elvis, in turn, is himself completely eclipsed by an even greater giant of pop music: Bing Crosby. Crosby’s heyday was the first half of the 20th century so he is often forgotten, but the numbers have survived; his chart popularity surpasses Elvis’ almost four-fold. I’d say that this speaks, at the very least, to the popularity of good old fashioned songcraft and crooning.


The West, The Rest and The Melody

More than once lately, I’ve run across the opinion that the European musical tradition of analysis and codification often stifles musical expression. Non-European musical traditions are said to provide an antidote to this over-intellectualization of the building blocks of music.

This is definitely an over-simplified generalization, but like a lot of generalizations, it helps put things into some perspective. The Western common practice tradition has always been more cerebral than visceral, chiselling musical ideas and squeezing them into time-honored forms and conventions. On the other hand, African and Asian cultures (especially tribal ones) and their derivatives gave freer reign to unabated self-expression, feeling and improvisation.

The European and African approaches did come together in America, producing most of the most important and invigorating musical styles of the last century, such as ragtime, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Since then, the coming together of such disparate musical legacies has been a win-win situation. More systematic approaches are saved from sterility while the more instinctive ones become more directed and have a better chance of being preserved in some way.

The interesting thing is the preponderance of the melody. Being that melodies are the most universally appealing, readily apprehensible and indelible element of music for lay listeners, it is ironic that it has been most prominent in the West. Of course, melodies have always existed outside the Occident, but not really as central, noncontingent themes with agreeable notes of the kind that has come to define most of what we would deem popular music today.