“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” Igor Stravinsky
I’ve come across that quote and its derivatives many times reading about creativity. It’s why we have “writing prompts” to inspire a writing exercise, for instance.
So what I decided to do for my “constraint”–and which actually saved me a lot of time that would have otherwise been spent gnawing on pencils and scratching my head trying to come up with ideas, was to decide not to reinvent the wheel. I would “copy” song structures and song arrangements that had stood the test of time. Is that cheating? Naw… Everybody does it, and it is not a violation of copyright.
Specifically, I GOOGLED around and found ROLLING STONE Magazine’s list of the 500 best songs ever and put them into a spreadsheet. I then duplicated the list two more times in the spreadsheet and randomized all three lists. Once this was done, my methodology was to take the song in column 1 and use it for chords and structure (the chords of a song cannot be copyrighted–many, many songs have been written, for instance with the old “C-Am-F-G” pattern common in the 50s. From column 2’s song I would try and copy–or at least pay homage to–the arrangement, i.e., was it a country song with pedal steel and strings? Heavy metal? Ballad? If so, my song would be, too. Then I downloaded and studied the lyrics to the column 1 song, the column 2 song, and the column 3 song to come up with some kind of overlapping “theme” or, at least, a “song title”. Titles actually came pretty easy doing this, and set the tone for the upcoming lyrics. I would print off a page of all 3 songs’ lyrics and then, based on title and what I was seeing, I would jot down some early ideas for rhymes, phrases I wanted to use, etc.
Doing this for all 14 songs took up a chunk of time, but was worth it–probably 10 hours or so over the course of my first 2 days. At the end, I knew the titles to my 14 songs, knew the chords and structure to each, and had some ideas of rhymes and themes I would use in the upcoming lyrics.
Now that I had chords and structure, I could put them into software I have called Band In A Box–an amazing aid to composition that allows you, along with its companion software RealBand, to work on your songs pretty much the way they do it at a recording studio with studio musicians. The producer says, “Hey, Phil–we need an acoustic guitar here. John, play some kind of a bossa nova drum beat. Andy, a little rock organ for the second chorus. Stan, can you put a sax solo in between the second chorus and third verse? Etc.” But my musicians are “robots” that will generate accompanying tracks based on the chords input into Band In A Box. Truly an amazing technology and a tad expensive–but again, for me, so worth it. Vocals aside, when you listen to the completed album, you have to be impressed with the quality of the accompanying music.
There were songs that I “generated” as many as a dozen different instruments for, then imported into my main software “digital audio workstation” (DAW) for editing and mixing: Cakewalk’s SONAR. I’ve used Cakewalk’s software from Day One of my computer music “career”–since the early nineties. There’s nothing you can’t do in it.
So now I was ready to start the album. I did three songs that I was none too proud of, but during the writing of them I learned a ton about the composing process and the software I was using. Time well spent, but I won’t bore you with the results–my Facebook friends have already had to suffer through them. On Day Four I finally felt like I had come up with a decent song. It is called “Dreary Day” and the process of writing and recording it will be the topic of my next post.