Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Process" by Jess Edison

During the past year Once and Future Kings has been developing a new music creation process. In order to talk about the new though, I have to talk about the old for a frame of reference. In the past, many of the songs have been written on acoustic guitar. Sometimes the song would be complete by the time I introduced it to the band, and so the band would write parts around what I had written. If in the end we decided the song wasn't up to par, compared to other songs that we feel are good, we might set it aside for harvesting. Another song that lacks completeness could take a chunk of the failed song and turn it into something more pleasing. This process was a sort of Dr. Frankentstein's monster approach. If I were to draw an analogy to art, it's like making a collage. The quintessential example of a collage song is The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." It works and it makes for a very interesting song - I love it, obviously.

So back then, when I discovered songs could be written in this way, I started to apply the collage principle toward many elements of the songwriting process. I would catalog phrases that came to mind. I would record melody snippets on my cell phone. The art was in deciding how these pieces fit together. Sometimes these seeds still resulted in writing entire songs, but the collage process gradually came to dominate. The musical snippets ranged from a rhythm to a guitar or bass segment to a vocal line. But melody always preceded lyrics. When a song felt like a catalogued lyrical phrase, the rest of the lyrics would follow suit. You can really write a bad song by forcing lyrics into a melody. That's something I still believe. It's music first, and then hopefully certain vowels and consonants fit.

But then I began to ask why I should stop my art analogy at collage. I don't even particularly like collage in art form. My favorite art is abstract expressionism, surrealism, and Dada. Meanwhile I had been developing a more concrete painting style, and I found myself more capable of conceptualizing my process, probably since it is always possible to view a painting from a 3rd person perspective. After posting my paintings to Facebook, I received some positive feedback, and I was inspired to share my interpretation of the process:

"The current status of these paintings is the result of a recent surge of activity, all done in the past week or so. However, I worked on the foundation/background of each two years ago. My paintings in the past have been almost purely abstract, but I noticed that I would always look for faces in the abstract paintings. So I added that step to my process and made the faces and figures explicit. In this way I'm participating partially in the Dada tradition, finding form from chaos. I like how it's reverse-Picasso (he abstracted from figures). I'm "figuring from abstraction." I also like how the work is reverse-Pollock in the sense that Pollock abandoned a similar technique ("She-wolf") and moved to abstraction, and my path to this work was the reverse."

So what I tried to do is apply my painting process to music. What is the equivalent of laying down subconscious lines in colors that coordinate? Perhaps it is the entire band spontaneously jamming. So I began recording nearly every practice and every jam. This served two purposes. It allowed us to critique songs we considered finish, and it allowed us to mine the jams for "faces" or interesting passages of music. Every now and then we would have happy accidents in which a randomly occurring mistake would morph into an essential element of the song. In terms of incorporating Dada principles (Dada artists used to write poems by randomly drawing newspaper clippings of words from a hat, for example) - during the jams I began to utter stream of consciousness syllables that sounded musical. After the fact, I would listen to the jams and interpret what the lyrics must be according to the way it sounds. In this way, writing lyrics conforms to my stream of consciousness sense of syllabic musicality, but I'm writing them from a 3rd person perspective just like I would search for faces in an abstract painting. To bring quantum physics into it, even, I am the experiment, the observer and the observed.

Following this process resulted in several songs. Some of the songs didn't need to venture very far away from the original jam. Some were chopped up. For variety's sake, we don't want to overgeneralize this one process. Let us blend the old with the new, as our band name suggests. But this development has expanded what it means to sound like Once and Future Kings. Twelve new songs. Hear for yourself:

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