IASPM 2014: Songwriter as Seeker


Richard Parfitt (Bath Spa University)

Mona Lisa

The cultural status of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is likened to the Mona Lisa; mythology and history may make it impossible to see the art objectively.

Richard begins with a discussion of a personal experience of seeing Mona Lisa recently at The Louvre, and uses this as a springboard to reflect on the difficulty in separating a work from its mythology. He then discusses the ‘Text’ and the ‘Context’ with reference to Tagg.

Leonard Bernstein’s view of Elvis is cited – he described the latter as ‘the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century’ and reflected on his influence on musical grammar. This leads the paper to a discussion of craft and art, and the relationship between creative constraints and an ideas-driven agenda. Such constraints, Richard suggests, can include technically poor musical skills (Sleaford Mods and Ian Curtis are cited as examples), and with these constraints some songwriters can thrive if they have an ‘ideas-driven agenda’.

A quote from Sting appears to frame a discussion of songwriting as a re-ordering of tropes:

In pop music, there’s no such thing as composition. We collate from pre-existing tropes and then the originality comes in the interpretation.

We now turn to Van Morrison, the subject of the paper, and Astral Weeks is described as an example of the ‘songwriter as seeker’ – looking for metaphoric inhabitation of another world (Stars Don’t Stand Still In The Sky: Music & Myth, Kelly 1999). An interview with VM touches on the idea of searching, where he states that the state of searching/yearning is a requirement in order to approach the creative process dispassionately and productively.

Lyrics in VM’s canon are described more as a sound than as a way of communicating meaning through language, and Richard describes the stream of consciousness/poeticism in VM lyrics to be more representative of how people think than of how they speak. [I find this an excellent illumination of the subtle relationship and conflicts between prose, poetry and lyrics].

‘The voice’ usually conveys how the writer[‘s character] is feeling, without necessarily communicating literal or specific information. Brown-Eyed Girl is noted as the fourth most requested song for radio airplay in the USA. The chaotic recording sessions are described, and the haphazard creative process was contrasted with the songwriter’s skill at steering this chaotic ship to its destination. There is a brief discussion of repetition in VM’s work, and Elizabeth Margulis’ work on repetition is used to frame examples of the way linguistic meaning can receded with multiple repetitions of a lyric phrase (as it travels from literally communicative to purely sonic). Sheldrake’s (2012) four-way process of reimagining is cited as an example of how VM songs communicate:

  • sensual experience
  • interpretive framework for knowing the world
  • a judgement about the way the owlrd should be
  • an invitation to decide how to live

The last word is left to VM himself, who (in interview) debunks the mythology of his own lyrics with a workmanlike (and extremely unromantic) description of how he researches his lyrics.

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