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Posts Tagged ‘music’

21 MAY, 2014

Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work

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“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Van Morrison once characterized Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) as the greatest living poet. And since poetry, per Muriel Rukeyser’s beautiful definition, is an art that relies on the “moving relation between individual consciousness and the world,” to glimpse Dylan’s poetic prowess is to grasp at once his singular consciousness and our broader experience of the world. That’s precisely what shines through in Paul Zollo’s 1991 interview with Dylan, found in Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — that excellent and extensive treasure trove that gave us Pete Seeger on originality and also features conversations with such celebrated musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, Carole King, and Neil Young, whose insights on songwriting extend to the broader realm of creative work in a multitude of disciplines.

Zollo captures Dylan’s singular creative footprint:

Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him.

[…]

There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained his songs throughout the years.

One essential aspect of Dylan’s creative process that comes up again and again in the interview is the notion of the unconscious and the optimal environment for its free reign. Dylan tells Zollo:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

Like many creators, Dylan values that unconscious aspect of creativity far more than rational deliberation, speaking to the idea that the muse cannot be willed, only welcomed — a testament to the role of unconscious processing in the psychological stages of creative work. He tells Zollo:

The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.

In order to do that, he adds, one must “stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” Contrary to Bukowski’s punchy assertion that the ideal environment for creativity is an irrelevant delusion and E.B. White’s admonition that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Dylan believes this optimal frame of mind can be induced — or, at least, greatly aided — by the right conditions:

For me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing…

Environment is very important. People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments.

To foster such unconscious receptivity, Dylan argues that “you have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind” and explains:

First of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of them thoughts.

Then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see it but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all that it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the Me Decade, whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.

Dylan makes a seemingly controversial statement that resonates with new layers of poignancy in our present age of seemingly infinite cloud libraries of streamable music and a constant, industrialized churning out of disposable pop hits:

The world don’t need any more songs… As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred songs, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs.

Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.

But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it… Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.

In fact, Dylan seems to regard “popular entertainers” — despite counting himself among them — with a certain degree of contempt and mistrust:

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.

Dylan considers what it takes to be among the few rare exceptions worthy of true creative respect:

Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kinds of stuff together, she’s learned her thing… But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot.

When Zollo asks Dylan whether he sees himself the way Van Morrison famously characterized him, Dylan replies:

[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication.

[Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t… poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets! [Laughs]

[…]

Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code.

[Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings…

When the conversation veers into the question of whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and people’s skepticism about accepting that a single person was able to produce such a body of work, Dylan makes a remark that extends to a great many more aspects of society:

People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.

He seems especially dismissive of public opinion and even more so, similarly to David Bowie, of artists’ preoccupation with it:

It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.

As the conversation progresses, Zollo returns to songwriting, citing Pete Seeger’s assertion that originality is a myth and all songwriters are “links in a chain,” to which Dylan responds:

The evolution of a song is like a snake, with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.

Considering his own songs, Dylan contemplates their nature, the self-transcendence necessary for writing, and the creative value of being an outcast:

My songs aren’t dreams. They’re more of a responsive nature…

To me, when you need them, they appear. Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Complement it with similar meditations on process and creativity from the world of writing, including thoughts by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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13 MAY, 2014

Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

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“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

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09 MAY, 2014

An Animated Ode to What a Dog Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

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Mastering the art of unselfconscious presence.

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite Dog Songs, “our own is increased. It is no small gift.” Dogs have inspired literature, been muses to art, and garnered the label of “genius.” But the true gift of Dog — the gentle and ineffable essence of dogness — remains precisely that capacity for unselfconscious joyfulness. In a world obsessed with productivity, Dog might be our greatest gateway to pure presence.

That’s exactly what British singer, songwriter, and guitarist Nat Johnson captures with equal parts playfulness and poignancy in her single Dog — an homage not to Dog as a creature or a pet but as a disposition to the world, a way of life.

Oh, yes, and there’s an impossibly wonderful animated music video for added delight:

Complement Dog, which is also available on iTunes and Bandcamp, with this lovely animated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s If Dogs Run Free, then revisit Jim Homans’s breath-stopping meditation on what dogs are for.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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