I listened to something last night that I have had for some time but was saving for the right moment. It’s a 43-minute long mp3 of a writing session for a piece of music called “Missing You,” by Steve Perry. Like a lot of his later-era relationshippy music, it’s a tough listen, but aside from that, the approach was fascinating.
I’ve said before that my own approach to music (and to writing it) seems to be more a fascination for the abstract structure of the music, the tinkertoy mobile that hangs in midair in my mind associated with a given piece. Almost the grammar of the piece. That’s what I love. The notes are just the vertices of the 3-d structure that the music itself makes. They’re only there to reveal that structure.
With the viola and most single-note instruments, the beauty is more the perfection and glitter of the individual notes that are at each vertex. The piano (and me when I write) builds the tinkertoy structure, but the viola polishes the gems that are then stuck on each vertex, and a lot of the beauty of that music is in the beauty of the crafted gems.
The “Missing You” writing session exposed a completely different way of approaching writing music as well. (I guess which one resonates more with a given writer is a matter of personality and natural inclination.) “The less there is to say, the more there is to sing” (paraphrase) was flat-out said in this writing session. And while the melody was gorgeous — and labeled as such with the comment “this is such a great melody” by Perry as he was working — a good part of that was due to the room it afforded the singer to move and embellish. It wasn’t too claustrophobic and gave him a lot of room to work in the manner he preferred, concentrate on expressing the message of the song, and which showcased his voice where he knew it was at its best. (Singer-songwriters always write in a way that shows their own unique instrument off best.)
It was almost completely lyrically driven, and also driven in a “telling a story” sort of way that I found was very much like the way that a classical music interpreter has to approach their work as well. Any piece of music is a narrative; a song with lyrics simply makes this obvious. In fact, it’s a damned crying shame that files like this are *coughs weakly* somewhat dubious regarding their legality, because they would be golden for composing students. It’s a shame more writing sessions aren’t available for modern composers/songwriters along the lines of Valentina Lisitsa’s youtubed practice sessions. As useful as this is, I’m sure that other composers noodle and work in different ways, even other rock and R&B composers/songwriters. We tend to see only the polished, finished product when it comes to pop/rock, and classical/jazz is where the hood gets lifted to see all the fiddly bits. Pop/rock are completed commodity items, and classical/jazz are the DIY stuff. I’d kill to lift the lid on more real pop/rock songwriters. What I wouldn’t give for a similar writing session from Jeff Lynne or Dennis DeYoung …
It was also very impressive to note that, as a working writing session, this file was not autotuned, cleaned up, or rendered fit for consumption but simply recorded as-is. Except for the moments (fewer than I could count on one hand) when Perry was hesitating or would interrupt himself and rework something, he was exactly on the center of the note every single time. It reminded me of the way that Yo-Yo Ma might pick up a cello bow and noodle casually — sounding perfect the whole time. It was the sort of negligent perfection that is anything but negligent and speaks of decades of hard labor, and an insatiable appetite for getting it exactly right.
Doing it right is non-negotiable. You do it right when performing. You do it right when practicing. You do it right when writing. You do it right when noodling. You just do it right. That’s step zero, no matter what. There is no excuse for not doing it right.
Also, I’m familiar with this song, but less so than with some of his other work. (Again, his later-era love songs are a bit draining to listen to.) In every single instance where he was noodling around and I was thinking to myself, “XYZ is a better lyric,” or “drop down there at the beginning so you can go up later,” that is precisely what he would wind up doing. He always ended up making the best possible choice for the music, in every instance. Unfailing instincts and training. Extremely impressive.