Paul Simon on the Creative Process
Yesterday, I mentioned that Paul Simon "says some interesting things about the creative process" in his review of Stephen Sondheim's recent book, Finishing the Hat, but I didn't really say much. I won't today, either, since I'm still suffering a recent relapse of the flu and don't have the energy or concentration. But I'll say a bit.
The NYT editors note in "Up Front: Paul Simon" (October 27, 2010) a bit about Mr. Simon's views on the creative process:
In his review [of Sondheim], Simon refers to "that feeling of joy" that arises when an artist creates a work of art. "The question of artistic bliss is really interesting," he said. "I guess I first felt it when I wrote the melody and the words 'Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.' I remember being surprised. I had no idea where those words and melody came from, and I thought, 'Well, that's better than you usually do.'"I know precisely what Mr. Simon means. I've had the same feeling at times in writing a poem Some of the phrases in "Water Witching" seemed to come from somewhere, which is perhaps why we have the myth of the muse. Anyway, that "feeling of joy" cited by the editors is a reference to something that Mr. Simon said in his Sondheim review, "Isn’t It Rich?":
The book "Finishing the Hat" becomes a metaphor for that feeling of joy, the little squirt of dopamine hitting the brain when the artist creates a work of art. It's a feeling so addictive the artist is willing to forgo love in order to experience artistic bliss. It could be a metaphor for Sondheim's love of songwriting.I don't know if dopamine is involved, and this reduction to chemistry rather deflates the blissful quality of what philosophers of mind call "qualia," but something really strange is going on in the creative process, when the poet has "no idea where those words . . . came from."
Some things are intentional, however, as Mr. Simon explains:
Sondheim quotes the composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia: "True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard." I have a similar thought regarding attention span and a listener's need for time to digest a complicated line or visualize an unusual image. I try to leave a space after a difficult line -- either silence or a lyrical cliché that gives the ear a chance to "catch up" with the song before the next thought arrives and the listener is lost.I don't think that John Milton provides poetic space to catch up, but I'd have to check. Nevertheless, it's an intriguing point to consider in analzing pop songs.
At times, the intentionality comes from outside the artist, as explained by Mr. Simon:
[I am] reminded . . . of my . . . reluctance to add a third verse to "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I thought of the song as a simple two-verse hymn, but our producer argued that the song wanted to be bigger and more dramatic. I reluctantly agreed and wrote the "Sail on silvergirl" verse there in the recording studio. I never felt it truly belonged. Audiences disagreed with . . . me . . . . "Sail on silvergirl" is the well-known and highly anticipated third verse of "Bridge."The artist sometimes doesn't know best, despite best intentions.
Nor, apparently, does the mysterious muse, dependent for at least once upon the producer's intervention.