Thursday, April 12, 2012

Vocabulary building

Developing a Creative Process, part 4
This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, why I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.

I learned it as an inverted pyramid,
but I guess it's a hamburger now.
Oh, it’s time to write a persuasive essay? a literature review? an analysis of a set of phonological data in Optimality Theory? Give me a choice of music, caffeine, and a word processor, and I’ll hand in at least a B-grade paper in just a couple of hours. But the roadmap for how to do that has always been very clear: prescriptive rules for what makes a good sentence, prescriptive diagrams for how to organize your ideas inside a paragraph, and sometimes the basic outline of your paper is literally handed to you by the professor. One of the conversations that started this introspection into my creative process was Joseph whinging about how even if you do go to school and get a degree in music (performance, production, whatever), there’s no clear-cut career path to follow once you’re out. Creative endeavors don’t really have a roadmap like academic or professional endeavors do.

That’s why I want to make sense of all this: I am a great navigator if I’ve got the map in hand. I’m hoping that if I write enough description of my process, maybe a prescription will emerge. Amateur cartography.

Can’t describe anything without words. Developing the vocabulary to talk about something is a giant step toward understanding it. Every field has its own specialized jargon: wine tastingMMORPGs (wrote a paper about WoW jargon once), linguistics, music. Most people talk about music using words like “awesome,” but when you hear a guitarist talk about tone, you’ll hear things like “crunchy,” “syrupy”, “beefy” – which are fairly intuitive in meaning since everyone can relate to food but still odd until you’re used to the dialect. You’ll also hear a lot of comparisons to other musicians or albums, and if you’re not familiar with them, it’s like that moment when you mean to turn on the subtitles but you really change the audio and suddenly Indiana Jones is speaking French: very confusing. Also, you’re not cool.

When I played WoW, I was an undead frost mage.
Now that I know I can decide what my music sounds like, I’ve been listening to music differently. Even though I don’t think it’s my favorite album of hers, Ingrid Michaelson’s new album, Human Again, has a lot of great things about it, and I kept thinking, “THAT, right there, that part, that one moment, I want Joseph to make my music sounds like THAT.”

Knowing there was probably not going to be an opportunity for us to sit down and have an album-listening party, I took my lunch break at work to sit and listen and think and write about what exactly I was pointing at so fervently in my head. Instead of reviewing the album as a whole, or thinking about the lyrics, or even the melody very much, I focused on the instrumentation, the mix, the balance, the space between the music -- the stuff I typically let wash over me or ignore.

The album is all standard Ingrid, and I think that’s good: candor, vulnerability, hooks like woah. But what’s new and what I love most about the album is the DRUMS. It’s hard to talk about drums without the vocabulary. I need to have a date with Alex so I can learn to talk about drums. … And I want to have a date with Alex.

What I wrote about Ingrid was way longer than I thought it would be. I ended up deleting it instead of sending it because I just didn’t think Joseph would read it, but I wish I had it now. Things like: “80s booming snare,” “final consonant devoicing for a falling feeling,” “disco beat set perpendicular to the lilting melody,” “deep floor tom reverb.” Even though I don’t have anything tangible to show for that hour, I think I learned a lot from the exercise. Once we move to recording, I think these details will be more important for me to be able to express, so I want to try it again. Anybody know any good pop music featuring accordion?

(I wrote all this yesterday, and this review of the 1982 book Music: Ways of Listening popped up today in my Google Reader feed. The book proposes the “seven essential skills of perceptive listening,” which Elliott Schwartz says have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.” (Point number four is to develop a vocabulary for talking about music. I have the urge to say Swish!, but I don’t think anyone says that anymore.)

No comments:

Post a Comment