What is the natural state of a song? What is the natural state of any idea when it is first born into this world?
I am fascinated by creativity and by the path that ideas take from original spark to manifestation.
It is a rare idea that a) makes it from the imagination and into this world at all and b) makes it into this world while in any way preserving even a hint of its original magic. We can help ideas along by expressing them clearly and making them memorable. As I wrote in The miracle of Bill & Ted:
“All ideas go through a similar journey from conception to execution. If an idea can be expressed as clearly as possible at an early stage, it has a better chance of surviving to the end product. Writing the right words can help capture the idea, and give it a fighting chance.”
If an idea is compelling, it will survive in the memory long after it has first been born into this world by being expressed out loud.
The song began in the imagination
In his epic, beautifully written memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello writes of his good fortune to have been born into (what might well prove to be) the tail end of the era in which a musician could make a healthy living from writing and recording their songs. But while the boom times may be over, he argues that this is no excuse to be tempted by nostalgia:
“Right now, it feels like a game of musical chairs, only the chairs are all invisible. The danger of regarding any point in the past as a golden age is that you forget that there were just as many crooks, crackpots, and idiots around then, and as many terrible records. We only recall the ones we love.”
Costello has a strong recall of the records and songs he loves. As well as telling his life story, Costello’s book gifts us a wide-ranging history of popular music, exploring how the music that moved him shaped his path through life. He also has much to tell us about the writing of songs.
There are so many ways that songs can come to be. The songwriter might pull ideas from the ether, or take direct inspiration from a song they’ve heard, or from their unreliable memory of what they think a song sounded like. The song must then find an audience. In the modern era, this is most done via songs that are recorded once then distributed to many.
But can any recording truly capture the song in its natural state?
Costello writes about a situation that made him reassess his view of the natural state of a song. He describes hearing Anna Sofie sing live at Wigmore Hall, London. Sofie sang a piece that Costello had never heard before – De Vilda Svanarna* by Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch. Hearing this song just once, in its live incarnation, was enough to enchant him:
“I must have held the impression of that song in my mind for five or more years before her recording of it was made. This was the natural state of a song prior to the invention of the cylinder recorder and gramophones. The song began in the imagination, lived on the page, then in the air, then in memory. It made me realise that the failure of any song to instantly register with the audience was not such a disaster after all. People were not always bound to share your latest enthusiasms. Patience, as they say, is a virtue.”
I love this passage. It beautifully captures how a song makes its way from the imagination into the world and might end up lodging itself in the memory. I also love his argument that it can take time for a song or an idea to find its audience, to take its rightful place in the world and in our memories.
The tone mute take
I love and worship music, yet I myself have somewhere between zero talent and an actual anti-talent for music. I’ve always liked Stephen Fry’s description of this unfortunate state as “tone mute.”** I once had a “tone mute” version of Costello’s experience of being struck by a song and having it live on in memory.
The third time I saw Nirvana live was at the 1992 Reading Festival, where they played All Apologies a full year before the recorded version was released. Extremely tired after a weekend of muddy conditions and little sleep, I remember remembering All Apologies in the following weeks and months as a quite beautiful, soft and gentle song about innocent friendship.
My memory of this song was confined entirely to my head following this one listening. I didn’t get to compare what I thought I remembered of the song to its actual reality until a whole 12 months later, when In Utero came out. I remember being amazed to hear just how different the actual song was from how I thought I remembered it.
A compelling song or idea might live on in the memory of its audience long after it has first been born into this world by being expressed out loud. But the memory of the audience might be unreliable, and might thereby take the song or idea off in new directions entirely unimagined by the original author.
Remember it or lose it
The first test of any song is whether or not it can stick in the mind of its author. I’m reminded of Paul McCartney’s description of the brutal, survival-of-the-fittest approach that he and John Lennon had to take to songwriting in their early days:
“John and I didn’t have [a tape recorder] when we first started writing, we would write a song and just have to remember it. And there was always the risk that we’d just forget it. If the next morning you couldn’t remember it – it was gone. There must have been dozens lost this way. You had to write songs that were memorable, because you had to remember them or they were lost!”
How many potentially wonderful Beatles songs were lost purely because the authors didn’t recall them the next day? How much god-given music was lost that way? Or was nothing truly great or god-given lost, the proof being that what was god-given was strong enough to live on in memory, and therefore exists today in recorded form?
The song – as with any idea – begins in the imagination, lives on the page, then in the air, then in memory.
What is the natural state of a song? It’s how it lives on in your own memory.
* Through the magic of modern music streaming, we can instantly hear the Anna Sofie that so enchanted Costello, from her album Wings in the Night: Swedish Songs.
** I’ve always loved Stephen Fry’s words from his first volume of autobiography Moab Is My Washpot about what it is to love music, yet to have an anti-talent for the making of music:
“I’m not even tone deaf, that’s the arse-mothering, fuck-nosed, bugger-sucking wank of the thing. I’M NOT EVEN TONE FUCKING DEAF. I’m tone DUMB.”