First published in Victory Review, February 2002.
I want to elaborate on some points I raised in last month's column about improvising lyrics. In that article, I described an exercise in which formal patterns (rhythms, rhymes, line length, etc.) can be used as a kind of container into which you can pour the random ideas, images, and word combinations that come from your unconscious mind.
I characterized this process as a mutual cooperation between the left and right halves of the brain. The left brain is allowed to "administer" the task of strictly conforming to the formal pattern you've chosen, and the right brain is allowed to play with sound and sense as freely as it wishes. This prevents the left brain from clicking over into "censor" or "critic" mode and trying to micro-manage the content that the right brain is coming up with. And it prevents the right brain from wandering so far and wide that the writing that results has no formal shape to it at all.
In this kind of game, the critical eye and the visionary eye don't interfere with one another because they're not looking at the same things. The former is dealing with issues of structure, of satisfying the rules of whatever formal game you've established. This is an excellent "assignment" for this part of our minds, not only because it excels at such tasks, but because it is thus kept from paying too much attention to what we're actually writing.
Anyone who pursues creative work has encountered this idea before, that it's important to not let the "censor" within us shut us down. But it's not always clear how to do it. This technique that I've described of improvising to a specific form is one way of getting around the censor. It's a kind of mental judo: instead of trying to "shut down" the censor, we give it something to do that doesn't get in our way — we let it monitor how well we stay within the structure of the form.
But improvising within a form also offers other, less obvious, benefits. It not only occupies our left brain, but it also gives our right brain something with which to "prime the pump" and get some ideas flowing. The form acts as a kind of key, or conduit, or lightning rod for the crazy, indefinable stuff that's knocking around in our unconscious minds. It gets things going, and gives them somewhere to go.
This can be done in any medium, not just songwriting. For example, if someone told you to "make up something" on your guitar, right here and now, on the spot, you might choke a bit. You might have a little trouble getting started, not only because you might feel self-conscious, but also because you literally can't think of anything. But if that someone gave you a chord change or a groove to play over, it would suddenly become much easier to "make up something." You'd no longer be working in a vacuum. You'd have a context, an environment, something to work with.
If you've ever improvised visually by drawing or painting on a blank piece of paper, you may have found that the first mark is often the hardest to put down. This is because the page is empty, there's no form. Once you put something down, a form begins to emerge of itself, and you're off and running.
Another important aspect of this game of improvised-writing-to-a-form is that it makes such powerful use of repetition, or more precisely, of "theme and variation." As you repeat the form over and over, you create little games with the words, with the images, repeating some elements and changing others. You riff on the words, finding ways to build expectation and excitement.
It's just like jamming on your instrument. You create little riffs and melodies and then find ways to bend and twist and spin them this way and that way. You explore the dynamic tension and balance between repetition and variation, between the familiar and the novel, between expectation and surprise.
Somehow, improvising-within-form (also known as "freedom within limitations") has a way of putting me deeply and immediately in touch with these realities. Somehow, simply improvising with no sense of a structure or center is much less productive. If you're familiar with "free improv" music, you may have noticed that some groups and improvisors are just more compelling to listen to than others. They seem to have an ability to spontaneously generate music that has a sense of cohesiveness and inevitability to it. I believe this is because they are not simply playing whatever they feel like playing or playing everything that pops into their heads or into their fingers. They're "composing in the moment." That is, they're consciously creating a "something," and this something has a form, a shape, a logic to it. However, those improvisors without this sensibility create music that is random, off-balance, and ultimately self-indulgent.
Which brings us to another point worth mentioning: if your work has a center, a form, a structure, the listener can sense it, even if only unconsciously. In fact, they're listening for the form as much as they are the words and images. They want to hear the game of theme and variation, they want to feel the center of gravity so they can feel the thrill when you take the risk of leaning one way or another. They need to feel that center there to give meaning to the variations, to give the other elements something against which to create tension and friction.
And if your work is random, the listener can sense that, too. Randomness can have its own kind of drama, of course, but it rarely holds our interest for long. We quickly tire of the game because, in fact, there is no game, at least not one that we can play along with. Instead, we can only look on or listen in while someone else has their fun.
This is just as true in songwriting as it is in improvisational performance. The listener wants to feel the center of your song, sense the themes and variations, and follow the development of your musical and lyrical ideas. That development has to be interesting enough not to feel obvious, forced, or shallow, and yet not so radical that it seems to lack a true sense of direction or purpose.
Through the practice of improvising-within-a-form, you directly engage with these forces in your songwriting from the moment your pen hits the paper. You play with the very elements that help to animate a work of art, both structurally and spiritually. Enjoy!
© Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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