Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Paul Simon on the Creative Process

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello
(Image from NYT)

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.

Labels: , , , ,


At 3:51 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

"that feeling of joy" that arises when an artist creates a work of art. [...] I remember being surprised. I had no idea where those [contents] came from."
I know precisely what Mr. Simon means.

So do I.


At 4:38 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

The artist sometimes doesn't know best, despite best intentions

The dying Virgil asked his heirs to destroy the Aeneid.
The same will was left by Kafka concerning his manuscripts.
St. Thomas Aquinas died while repeating, "Straw... straw..." referring to his own works.

Canova, after seeing the Parthenon friezes, admitted that his own "Greek" sculptures were all wrong.
Whereas Georges Rouault succeeded in destroying a lot of paintings he didn't like any more.

Jesus never wrote a word. Except in the sand.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Some evangelicals maintain that Jesus wrote every word in the Bible . . . but I always understood that such was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

There's a problem here: How could God possibly "get inspired"? By whom??

At 3:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Committee work, it always turns out problematic . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:54 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

As Bruce Lee said, "It's like a hand pointing at the moon. But don't look at the hand or you'll miss all that heavenly glory."

Mind, he is being a tad sardonic when he says this.

At 12:05 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Franck Zappa has said a work of art--a song, painting, a poem--is like a mobile--it dosn't really matter what the shapes are made of or look like, and the length of the threads and sticks isn't that important. What's important is that it balances.

He also makes this observation(from _Joe's Garage Act I_): When Joe is broken up over his ex-girlfriend, Zappa asks: Was it the girl, or was it the music?" (Joe gets his understanding of relationships from pop songs--in Zappa's universe, Joe is an idiot).

And perhaps this leads us to what Milton says about barbaric musical devices in poetry....

At 4:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that Zappa has a point about pop music, but I've found that genuine emotion can surf its artificial surge.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I'm reminded that Plato has Socrates say in The Apology that when he inquired into the meaning of the works of the poets and found them unable to give it he concluded that their source must be divine inspiration...Footnotes to Plato and all that.

Daniel Kruidenier

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Daniel. That feeling of inspiration appears to be one belonging to the ages.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home