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’.

PopMAC day 2: Into the Mythic. Richard Parfitt #popmac

Bob and WoodyInto the Mythic. Richard Parfitt (Bath Spa University)

Through universal themes we understand and make sense of the world. Our reaction to art is imbued with unintentional responses. That we may see rebirth in the constant reinvention of David Bowie, or perhaps find the spirit of Odysseus in Bruce Springsteen, is testament not just to the power of myth, but the exploitation of that need by market forces. The metaphor retains its power and the message finds its medium in whatever culture is available at the time. Narratives from the Bible and Greek drama, as well as Hollywood movies and fiction chime with the semiology of many contemporary acts. Non-Western traditions are represented through comparative mythologies and mystical archetypes. One only has to look closely at Florence and the Machine to see not just the modern Pre-Raphaelites, but also the White Goddess. In this secular age, paganism has gone mainstream, and that means the free market is on to it. Don DeLillo once wrote: When the old gods leave the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith? (1) The philosopher John Gray believes that that the need to worship is hardwired into the human brain (2). If he is right then people will seek out the old myths in whatever context they have put their faith. This presentation will look at implied narrative and the significance of psychic landmarks as a way of validating music and unifying aspects of pop culture.

Richard J. Parfitt is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa University where he runs the MMus in Songwriting. He crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of academia late, having previously worked professionally within the music industry, where he was guitarist and songwriter for the 60ft Dolls. In 2005, he worked closely with Rough Trade Management developing the career of Grammy and Brit Award artist Duffy, and as a songwriter he has sold over a million records. He is currently working towards a doctorate in Music and Myth.

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Richard sets out his arguments by outlining questions of authenticity and voice in the context of the question he is often asked ‘how do you teach songwriting’. He then lists many ‘teachable’ parameters – metre, rhyme, imagery, melodic shape etc. But he asserts that although craft can be taught, songwriting is also an art.