The Song Beneath
In a last-ditch, desperate, all-chips-in attempt to stop myself becoming the world’s fattest man, I have begun going to the gym. This is something I never thought I would do: I prefer gentle strolls outdoors, taking in the sweeping mountain vistas, or failing that, sandwiches. But lately the ambient Enya of my laziness has been drowned out by the dying screams of my vanity, and I have been making regular visits to a brightly lit exercise hell.
I try to cocoon myself from the up-tempo pop by putting in earphones and listening to podcasts, which has the added advantage of giving my mind somewhere to hide while my body is on one of the torture devices. Right now I’m holed up in the NPR podcasts, particularly Radiolab and Snap Judgement. They’re free and brilliant, and if you regularly find yourself in a gym or stuck in traffic and have an easily available way of listening to MP3s, I’d highly recommend them.
I’ve also been tearing my way through 99 Percent Invisible, the bite-sized podcast that deals with all aspects of design, from cities to languages to movie title sequences. In a recent episode, the musician and producer Jon Brion was being interviewed about the differences between songs and a performance pieces. It was an interesting distinction, and I’ll try and summarise it quickly.
Basically, he was saying that there are certain classic songs – he referred particularly to the works of Led Zeppelin – that get their power from the fact that it was those particular musicians in that particular place performing the music. He said that he loves Led Zeppelin and is in no way disparaging them, but the songs are quite simple, and when performed by another artist they lose almost everything that made them interesting. He also referred to punk music, which relies on the power and the performance rather than the structure of the music.
He contrasted this with songs – pieces of music that were still interesting independent of the particular performance. He used the example of Nirvana’s Lithium, and the standout chord-change in the first line. His point was that the performance and the song are distinct things, and can be appreciated independently.
It struck me that there’s a parallel situation in writing. I’m in awe of writers who have the wit to craft perfect metaphors. It’s a skill that I’m still quite far from (see the first paragraph). I’m highly impressed by imagery, alliteration and the techniques of poetry. They’re all important, gut-punchingly powerful parts of writing, but they’re not the whole story. In fact, they’re not the story at all.
The story is the plot, or at least it has been for me. I come from a background of genre fiction, where the plot is the reason for reading. The stories could be enjoyable in their familiarity, like the four chords repeated in every pop song, or surprising yet seemingly inevitable after the fact, like the key-change in Lithium, or the punch-lines of the best jokes.
This is not to discredit the writers who focus on poetic and literary technique. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite, because in this metaphor it’s clear that I’ve been spending all my time on the sheet music and not long enough on the scales. I’ve been overly suspicious of the New Yorker-style short stories, with their disdain of plot and their emphasis on subtle technique. I’ve always told myself that I’m in the game to entertain, not to impress. But I love tune, and I’m doing it a disservice if I don’t know how to play it to the best of my ability.
It’s a question of deployment. I have no interest in technique for its own sake in writing, any more than I’d want to preform a majestically shredded heavy-metal rendition of chopsticks. I’m sure that some guitarists could do it well, and the great ones could even bring me to tears with it. I am awed by technique, but in the end I’ll always come back to the tune, and wonder if it ought to be going up here or down there or coming to a lull. The song is nothing without the performance, but the performance is self-indulgent if it isn’t in service of the song.