September 25th, 2005

operesque

The Shepherd

I was listening last night to a BBC Radio 4 series called Creative Genius, three half-hour programmes presented by Ian Peacock. The third, on how to make yourself more creative, struck me as the most interesting. Nine minutes into the RealAudio file you can hear Paul Howard Jones of the University of Exeter conducting an experiment on Peacock inspired by Kurt Schwitters, who used to set himself the challenge of, for instance, making a collage based only on materials he found rummaging through his wife's wastepaper basket. Jones' experiment asked Peacock to tell stories using random and unrelated words while lying in a brain scanner. His hypothesis (later proven by the brain scans and subjective judgements of the stories) was that Peacock would produce more creative stories, and use his brain more actively, when given more random, less related words to work with.

The experiment got me thinking about the importance of limitation, of making self-imposed rules which restrict that awful "anything is possible" feeling we get confronted by a blank sheet of paper (or a blank CD). Without limitation, it's easy to sink into what Brian Eno calls "the mire of options", or to fall into other people's styles, or the dominant formulas of the day.



When I'm planning an album (and I'm sort of "pregnant" with one now, but still in the very early stages) I tend to do something I call "signature specification", which could also be seen as a voluntary restriction of my own freedom. Style, after all, is limitation. It's the sum of all the things you don't allow yourself to do. You stop yourself doing those things by inventing restrictions for yourself early in the game. They're just guidelines, and of course you end up rebelling against them and breaking them, but they construct a sort of plank walkway across the "mire of options". They focus your thoughts. And if they're weird and random enough, I believe they make your work more creative.

Actually, maybe weird and random is not the best way to describe the self-imposed restrictions I use. I let appetite be my guide, choosing restrictions based on the kind of music I'm enjoying, and the formal properties, textures, genres, gestures and emotions I want to investigate in my record. It shouldn't be painful to submit to stuff you love; appetite makes you do that happily. You are, after all, only submitting to your own taste. And if style is the elimination of all the things you don't do, taste is the elimination of all the things you don't like.

So what might the limitations and eliminations on my next record be? What's the style specification? I want to scribble some notes towards it. First of all, the title. Titles are important, the first big shaping restriction. My working title so far has been "The Friendly Album". Now I'm thinking more in terms of a record called "The Shepherd". Here are some of the appetite-based restrictions I imagine bringing into play to shape the record.

First of all, the remaining idea from the "Friendly Album" concept is a record that's flat and static, like renaissance lute music, full of beauty and positivity. Positivity doesn't want to go somewhere, it wants to stay where it is; in a garden, perhaps, basking in the sun and listening to birdsong. A celebration of social connectedness is also, naturally, part of the "Friendly" idea; I want to make a record which celebrates friendship and interdependence rather than solitude and independence. A collectivist record! A political gesture! A moral position!

So we've got something friendly, positive, static, connected, collectivist. But although that's a lovely idea—I've already started collecting recordings of cooing turtle doves—it's also kind of boring, like a vision of heaven, a place where nothing ever happens. I need some contrast. Even Virgil's pastoral Eclogues have conflict.

It happens that I'm also interested, at the moment, in the idea of Torch. Not so much Marc Almond, Anthony and the Johnsons-style Torch, but Enka, the Japanese variety, and specifically this song from a 70s Shiseido ad for Simonpure beauty lotion. It's called Yume Hitoyo ("One Night's Dream"). Something about the relaxed sensuality of singer Kosetsu Minami's voice, combined with an undertone of aching hunger, appeals to me. (The beautiful proud woman lying semi-naked in the surf probably has something to do with it too.)

Torch and Enka aren't static, but dynamic. They want something, they want to go somewhere, they twist through chords and key changes, searching for an elusive happiness. Minami's song, though, is Pentatonic Torch. Well, the scale may not be a strict pentatonic, but, like a lot of Enka, it tends towards pentatonic shapes and turns pentatonic corners. And that's what fascinates me. The unfamiliarity of those corners, to the Western ear, makes this Torch seem formalist rather than corny. Torch tends to derive its emotional power from retreating always to familiar tricks, treading well-worn paths. But when we hear Torch in a foreign language using unfamiliar scales and chord sequences (and I'm also interested in Thai Torch, and Arabic Torch), it has this odd and interesting combination of weirdness and aggressive normality going on. How could you reproduce that fragile combination, give the listener the impression of padding along a well-worn path through an unfamiliar landscape?

Pentatonic bucolic torch! That's already plenty of restriction, plenty of contradiction to be getting on with. But if I need more, I just need to rummage in my bag of appetites, which is also a bag of restrictions, for some more "drawing restraints". As a matter of fact, there's another well-represented by a Shiseido ad. Check out this commercial for Benefique. A puppet woman soaks and soaps in a spilly cedar bath while a wooden bird twitters and peeps from a branch in the garden beyond. The music is a traditional Japanese folk song (snow melting in the daytime, a flower) accompanied by a shamisen. What I really love here is the sparsity of arrangement: it's perfect (but not Western) counterpoint, with usually only two notes sounding at any given time, two melodic lines snaking around each other, instrument and voice.

I really dislike the "thickness" of the sound of Western rock, where the whole tonal range from bass to hi-hats has to be filled by decree of some unwritten law of genre, based, no doubt, on some kind of adolescent need to avoid giving the impression of frailty and weakness. (I saw Motorhead doing "Killers" on TV last night, and it was utter fascism, right down to Lemmy's iron cross medallion... but also sonic fascism in the way it filled the whole sound spectrum the whole time with its idiotic "dominance".)

So I'd like to impose another rule-restriction: only two voices can sound at the same time, but there should be a constant turnover of voices. I'd like to do a pop version of Webern's radically non-repetitive "Five Pieces for Orchestra". But can tone that thin and frail, in phrases that never repeat, carry torch sentiment? The question brings "productive anxiety" or "generative tension" and joins other anxious questions: Can bucolic emotions work with torch, which tends to rely on tragedy? Shiseido and shepherds, how does that pan out? Selfish pleasure and social connectedness? A contradiction?

There's another purely formal idea I'm playing with the idea of playing with, this time from John Cage. Cage structured pieces according to the duration of sections. That may sound like a very simple idea, but it's radically different from the way I (or most pop writers) approach composition. Especially when you determine the duration of sections by chance operations. (I believe Bowie and Eno worked this way on "Low", at least on Side 2.)

So, random thin bucolic selfish sociable pentatonic torch it is, then. With the restrictions out of the way, it's just a question of choosing the notes.