Been thinking a lot lately about art and how it works. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how it is that we can create art, even though we can’t experience the art that we ourselves create. We work on it, refine it, revise it, throw it away and start again, and finally say, “Yes, it’s done!” – yet all the while we can’t “check it” by experiencing it as art.
I’ve been lately bewitched and befuddled by three novels by the Chilean author Roberto BolaÃ±o. My introduction to his work was “2666″, an emotionally overwhelming and overwhelmingly long tragedy which maintains an atmosphere of ominous boredom almost throughout, sometimes accelerating to a slightly more intense but still grindingly slow pace. It almost feels like BolaÃ±o is toying with you the reader, daring you to stay in the story even as he playfully embellishes and prolongs it. He even jokingly refers to this excruciating cat and mouse game in another work, “Nazi Literature in the Americas,” an elaborate encyclopedia of fictional authors, most of them supposedly obscure and perhaps mad, all of them far-rightist or fascist in their politics. One of the authors’ books is said to be “full of incomprehensible indices of proper names, and solicits an interaction in which no sensible reader would persist.”
But somehow BolaÃ±o manages to keep tantalizing you, keep your imagination swirling with disturbing and unsettling possibilities, keep you just barely hanging on. Why do this? In one way, I think it creates a sense of reality and also of being in a secret club which links readers from all over the world to each other in their having tolerated and passed through these fictional wanderings. But my larger question is “How?” How does BolaÃ±o calibrate the correct amount of interest and tedium required to create his hypnotic flow of words?
Because he can’t read his words as his own readers would. He already knows at least to some degree what he is going to say next, he already knows what mysteries lay beyond. He can’t read the first chapter and “check it” to see if it has the proper balance of suspense and mundaneness.
So strange. How does this work? I understand that training and experience might enable an artist to check her/his work for “rightness” based on some learned principles or a general sense of what has worked in the past. How to explain, then, that many songwriters’ first song is the best that they ever write? Training and experience in many cases never quite get a songwriter back to that first blush of understanding exactly “how this is done.”
When Semisonic was working on the mixes of “Feeling Strangely Fine” with uber-mixer Bob Clearmountain, our A&R guy Hans would attend the mix sessions until the point at which, in his words, we were “making changes only a dog can hear.” Then Hans would leave for his hotel room and whatever debaucheries A&R guys and gals used to engage in back in the days of corporate expense accounts.
But for usually a couple more hours, the band and Bob would stay at it, mixing whatever song, making little changes or big changes to the sound and arrangement, arguing, listening, and finally reaching the point where everyone in the band said, “Yes! it’s done!” (At least a few times Bob would say, “I thought it was done about three hours ago.”)
Now at this point we’d have been listening to the song for an entire afternoon, so there is no way that anyone was hearing the song innocently. We were by this point almost painfully familiar with every twist and turn of the arrangement and performance. Yet we could tell it was right, and almost every time, the last mix was in fact better than the ones we’d done earlier in the day.
Hearing the song innocently. That phrase reminds me of nobody more than Rick Rubin. I have no idea how innocently Rick approaches the rest of his life, but when he’s listening to a new recording of a song, he’s like a thirteen-year-old kid who has just bought the new single by his favorite artist. Rick crosses his legs on his listening couch, closes his eyes in delicious anticipation and sinks in to the music. If he’s about to listen to your music, you can feel the hopeful possibility of greatness, the feeling that you may have finally written “the one” – the perfect song that you were born to sing. And when he’s done listening, his perspective on the song seems utterly fresh and innocent and honest. He can release himself into the music and come back with the report: did it move me? And if the answer is yes, you can be sure there is real emotion in there which other people will love too.
Now that I think of it, though, Rick can’t simply summon this innocent frame of mind any old time. I remember vividly the first time he told me, on a day when we were supposed to compare notes on a new song I’d sent him, that he couldn’t listen to my song that day – he was in the wrong mood. I was disappointed to postpone our feedback session, but fascinated also. Was this one of Rick’s tricks? Does he only listen to stuff when he’s in the exact right frame of mind? (Even if this is so, he listens to so much stuff in his work week that he may well be the world’s biggest expert at being in the right mood for it.)
But Rick Rubin and Bob Clearmountain have a perceptual advantage in experiencing the songs they produce and mix: they didn’t write the songs and they didn’t perform them. When they’re listening to the vocal performance, they can hear the vibe and energy and sexiness of a performance in a way that the singer never can: the singer is probably hearing her flat notes, the slightly odd phrasing of a line she never could quite get right, the nasal quality of her voice coming out of the speakers. Remember the first time you heard a recording of your speaking voice played back to you? Remember how un-admirable that person sounded? How nasal and antiheroic? That’s how singers hear themselves in playback throughout their careers.
And this over-familiarity and wrong perspective exist throughout the artist’s relationship with her/his work. Maybe a puppeteer can forget that his hand is inside the puppet’s body, controlling its movements, maybe the puppeteer can divide his psyche in two, one half residing in his head, the other in his hands. Even so, the puppeteer will always have the rear view of the puppet’s performance, he will never see the puppet performing from the front, from the view that the audience enjoys.
So what does the puppeteer see during the performance that the audience can’t see? The audience, for one thing. The puppeteer can watch and feel the emotional effect of the puppet’s performance by watching and feeling along with the audience.
Maybe we’re getting somewhere.
When Adele and I wrote “Someone Like You” in a lovely little recording studio in West Hollywood, Adele was determined to make it into an epic of unforgotten love. We worked really hard to make every word and every note count. I could tell we were onto something good by the way Adele was willing to keep trying to make her vocal performance better and better, to push her voice past fatigue even though at the time we thought the recording was merely a demo for the song. (The demo we made was eventually the version Adele used for the album.) I could tell because at the end of the first day we were only halfway done with the song but she insisted on taking a mix of it home to play for her manager.
And I could tell we were onto something good the day after we finished the song, when Adele told me: “It made my Mum cry.”
Maybe the closest a songwriter can get to hearing her own song is hearing it through the ears of an audience, even if it’s only an audience of one.