Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

26 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Songwriter Carole King on Inspiration vs. Perspiration and How to Overcome Creative Block

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“Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes.”

To call Carole King one of the most successful female songwriters of all time, while correct, would be a disservice to the fact that she is one of the most successful, innovative, creatively courageous any songwriters of all time — something her four Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can only begin to reflect. As a songwriter, she has written cultural classics like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, and the contagiously catchy “The Loco-Motion.” As a singer-songwriter, she has recorded 25 solo albums over the course of her fifty-year career, including the 1971 masterpiece Tapestry, one of the bestselling records of all time, which outsold The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and included the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend.” Together with her onetime husband and longtime collaborator Gerry Goffin, King revolutionized, then defined, the sound and sensibility of popular music.

In 2013, King became the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — and yet the sweeping popularity of her songs has been not a goal but a byproduct of her singular creative vision. As Paul Zollo writes in his fantastic interview collection Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality and Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind“Carole has never been the type of songwriter who pays attention to trends, knowing after all these years that a great song transcends them all.”

Zollo’s wonderfully wide-ranging 1989 conversation with King reveals not only her extraordinary genius as a songwriter and a creative visionary, but also her luminous humility as a human being. Her thoughts on creative block and the interplay between inspiration and work ethic, while rooted in songwriting, apply just as powerfully to writing, art, and nearly any creative endeavor.

Reflecting on how her beloved song “You’ve Got a Friend” came to be, King counters the popular contemporary mythology that “inspiration” is nothing but the steady application of perspiration and echoes T.S. Eliot’s notion of the mystical quality of creativity, telling Zollo:

That song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself through me… It happens from time to time in part. That song is one of the examples of that process where it was almost completely written by inspiration and very little if any perspiration.

The reference, of course, is to Thomas Edison’s oft-cited aphorism, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

And yet King makes a parallel case for the value of work ethic in overcoming creative block — a lucid reminder, amidst a culture increasingly incapable of nuance, that “inspiration” and “perspiration” are osmotic counterparts:

Songwriters, both lyricists and melody writers, are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are, writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever.

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

Reflecting on her own process, she makes a case for the “slow churn” of creativity and for trusting that the incubation stage of the creative process will do its part:

I almost never have worried about it. Because when it seemed to be a problem, when I seemed to be … I don’t even want to say “blocked” because it seems like too strong a word. But when the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again. Whether it was an hour later, which is often the case, or a day later or a week later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it.

Paralleling Mary Gordon’s cure for writer’s block by manually writing out passages from beloved literature, King suggests a similar strategy for songwriting, in addition to just waiting it out:

Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unblocks a channel.

King returns to the inspiration-perspiration relationship and integrates the two — the intuitive and the methodical, the muse and the mastery — beautifully:

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes. I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of [in a high, fairy-like voice] you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you. Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do it.

Devour some of King’s timelessly enchanting music below:

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality, featuring conversations with such legendary musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with more thoughts on process and creativity from the world of writing, including meditations by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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03 JUNE, 2014

Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”

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“Come live, and be merry, and join with me, / To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’”

In December of 1969, Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926–April 5, 1997), one of the most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century, recorded a strange and wonderful LP, setting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience to song. Accompanied by an eclectic orchestra — Cyril Caster on trumpet, Janet Zeitz on flute, Bob Dorough on piano, Don Cherry on bass trombone, beaded gourd, sleigh bells and finger cymbals — Ginsberg gives Blake’s binary battery of innocence and experience a whole new dimension of enchanting duality.

Blake’s poetry was a particularly poignant choice for Ginsberg at a time when his own spiritual journey had taken him into the depths of Buddhism — at once a curious contrast with Blake’s heavy Christian influence and a sensical parallel to the ambivalence about the human soul, coupled with social and religious ambivalence, at the heart of Blake’s message.

Thanks to the remarkable PennSound archive at my alma mater — which also gave us Adrienne Rich on creative process, love, loss, and happiness, Gertrude Stein’s reading of “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” Yeats on modern poetry, and Charles Olson’s reading of “Maximus, to Himself” — these rare recordings endure in digital form. Here are three of them for our shared delight.

THE GARDEN OF LOVE

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

LAUGHING SONG

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene;
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing ‘Ha ha he!’

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’

NIGHT

The sun descending in the West,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.
The moon, like a flower
In heaven’s high bower,
With silent delight,
Sits and smiles on the night.

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,
Where flocks have took delight,
Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen, they pour blessing,
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.

They look in every thoughtless nest
Where birds are covered warm;
They visit caves of every beast,
To keep them all from harm:
If they see any weeping
That should have been sleeping,
They pour sleep on their head,
And sit down by their bed.

When wolves and tigers howl for prey,
They pitying stand and weep;
Seeking to drive their thirst away,
And keep them from the sheep.
But, if they rush dreadful,
The angels, most heedful,
Receive each mild spirit,
New worlds to inherit.

And there the lion’s ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold:
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold:
Saying: ‘Wrath by His meekness,
And, by His health, sickness,
Is driven away
From our immortal day.

‘And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep,
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee, and weep.
For, washed in life’s river,
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold,
As I guard o’er the fold.’

Complement the LP, copies of which are findable online and well worth the hunt, with Ginsberg’s passionate love letters to Peter Orlovsky, then revisit more musical arrangements based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, and e.e. cummings.

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27 MAY, 2014

A Lesson in Listening from John Cage

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A simple and beautiful reminder that we only hear what we listen to.

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around,” the legendary avant-garde composer, artist, and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage once remarked. But even though life began with a Big Bang that was actually silent, our civilization has evolved away from silence, rendering true listening an art reserved for the eccentric few. Still: “How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her diary. Or listen.

In “At the Microphone,” one of the shortest and most wonderful essays in the altogether fantastic collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated author on what to say when people ask you why you write or make art — Tillman describes a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture” held at Columbia University for an audience of 300 or so grad students, where a roster of “magnetic and illustrious” speakers discussed such subjects as the structure of the unconscious. Among them was John Cage — perhaps humanity’s greatest champion of the beauty and transcendence of silence as medium of art and life. Tillman captures the essence of his character and credo in a short fable-like anecdote with exquisite, subject-appropriate economy of words:

All day, men — no women — took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

In 1962, in Japan for the first time, Cage visits his Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki, who had shown him the heart of silence.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which goes on to explore everything from Kafka to Gertrude Stein to the poetics of downtown, is a dimensional and pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Kay Larsen’s breathtaking Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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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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