March 26, 2010

My Light in a Milky Way of Stars

(Photo by Carmen Borgia, 2/2010)

Like most of the rest of the universe of aspiring musicians, I have had dreams as big as you can have them. Dreams are one of the critical ingredients of any success story, and as a youth I never held back my wishes for musical success. Decades down the road now, I know I am in a large club of players who went for something big and ended up taking home the music I made, the treasured memories of having made it, and not much more. After the breakup of my San Francisco-based band The Secret Sons of The Pope in June 1985, I made a carefully considered decision to let go of pursuing a career based on popularity as my primary goal. Following this decision, (which I admit I made by necessity) I immediately felt a burden lifted from my shoulders, which I felt narrowed my goal to the music itself.

But then soon returned my ongoing issue of aspiring to a musically high standard. I have wrestled with this off and on since my first band, and sometimes I get over it and other times I’m just not satisfied.

Did you see the Lovely Bones movie? If you read the book, you might have been as excited as I was that Peter Jackson had chosen to make a movie out of this very good story. Jackson can be called an experienced Director, and they even secured one of my very favorite participants in music, Brian Eno, to contribute to the soundtrack. But art is fickle enough that even experienced experts can put their foot in it and come up with less than they expected despite their best efforts. IMO the movie landed wrong, and in this case, I think it had something to do with the 100 year-old mystery of translating the art forms of book to movie. We go to movies for different reasons than we read a book, and The Lovely Bones film seemed to end up betraying its benefit to the audience. Another older example of this might be the dreadful Fountainhead movie remake of the book, with Gary Cooper. A horrible outcome, and author Ayn Rand herself wrote the misguided screenplay.

Recently I’ve been recording songs that I’ve been playing to myself acoustically for years, and the process is alternately rewarding and vexing. On one hand I am wrestling with my skills of execution, but I am also reckoning with the unexpected result that can appear once committed to tape. (They still say “tape” these days to mean recorded, I heard an NPR commentator use it this week. As a musician I gotta love that). Shall I play it dramatically or understated? Joyful or downbeat? Pull out the stops or reign it in? One wrong decision and the whole song can start to mean a different thing.

I remember one time in 7th grade my late childhood friend Scott was goofing around in our Social Studies class. He was the film Monitor, and it was his job to run the projector when we watched a short movie about a given subject. Scott was the class clown, and in a casual moment he picked up the flat brown metal circular lid for the 16mm film canister and pressed it slightly sideways on his head, like a hat. It looked Chinese that way, and he made a silly accent to go with it. I remember instantly realizing that Scott hadn’t done that before, and yet he knew how he looked without looking in the mirror. It made a big impression on me, because I knew if I had tried the same thing I would have never realized the effect until I saw myself.

For me, making music has been a process of not knowing the final result until I try something and then put myself in the audience’s position (listen back without playing). Sometimes I need to come back later and pretend I haven’t heard this music before, with the goal of removing as much personal bias as possible. Occasionally I have the good luck of total amnesia when I return to something and completely fail to remember ever having played it. Then I am in the best position to make a judgment on what I consider to be good, bad, or sending a message of any kind.

Some artists like my friend Scott, (who was an actor) have the gift of knowing what they’re doing the moment they are doing it. In my case, I have had to make my temporary blindness an asset, by playing, forgetting, and returning over and over, note by note, until I dictate something/anything of meaning. It’s soooo much slower, but maybe this has given me some kind of advantage I didn’t know I had.

Regardless, the two bottom lines will always be, is this any good and did I mean to say it?

As I work at home each night on my latest recording, I am reckoning with both.

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