This year most people seem happier with our weekly Voice classes than they were last year. Unfortunately I’m less happy this year and have been struggling to fight my “this is nonsense, I’m giving up” reflex, which has been kicking in more frequently than in any other class. This term Voice has focused on writing our own songs, which has tested my reflex to the limit.
Of course, I’d love to be able to write songs. When I listen to wonderful music the idea of creating something that can move someone like that seems the ultimate creative act. I usually find myself thinking “I could write something like this, no trouble,” but that’s only true in the same way that I could look at a painting and think “I could paint something like that, no trouble.” Yes, I could do a passable (or, at least, recognisable) copy of it but the genius is in creating the original item to begin with, from nothing. The best lyrics manage the contradictory trick of seeming both utterly surprising and completely inevitable, the latter making one think songwriting isn’t so hard after all.
In order to end up writing and singing our own songs we followed a particular process, and I’ll take you through my experience of it — others’ experiences will have been very different (and often more positive).
We started with imagining our “Kinesphere”. I think that’s how it’s spelt, as there’s a Kinesphere referred to in Laban Movement Analysis as “the area that the body is moving within and how the mover is paying attention to it”. We imagined a sphere surrounding us, like an aura, and we had to “paint” it with our voices, moving our bodies and using our voices to imagine spraying different voice colours around us. Can you feel that reflex of mine kicking in yet?
This is part of the warm-up we’ve often done this year. The next stage was more specific to the task at hand. Simon, the teacher, suggested a series of locations, one by one, and we were to imagine ourselves there, imagine the sounds, the atmosphere, and use our voices and bodies (with our eyes closed) to represent what we imagined or felt. If I recall correctly there was a sacred space, a busy street and a beach. After that we each had to go to our notebooks and spend a few minutes doing free writing, scribbling down whatever came to mind without censoring ourselves.
When I’m teetering along the line between giving up and giving something a go the end result depends a lot on how I’m feeling on that particular day. I guess this day I just wasn’t up for it and I fell onto the side of giving up. Having been put off by the Kinesphere stuff I couldn’t suspend judgement any further and imagine myself in any of the locations, and so felt I had nothing to write down.
The next week we tried a different angle. Still with our Kinespheres we made sounds like the start of a laugh (something we’d also just done as a group, lying on the floor, heads on each others’ stomachs to feel the convulsions caused). For most people this progressed into (what sounded like) genuine laughter. After this we did the same with the sound of crying. Then it was off to the notebooks to get writing again. This is what I wrote:
Load of bollocks. Yawning, boring, wide yawns. No laughter, no crying. Tired and bored. Kinosphere my arse. Restrictive. Can’t out here. Can’t be me. Hate it. Waste of 3 hours of my time. Could have done something useful. Must keep writing this stuff whatever it means. Reading. Henry James letters, Appollinaire, LRB, reviews. On and on, keep writing nonsense. Books, and on when do we stop, oh, a tear from my eye, I’m crying, of boredom and tiredness I guess. Still quiet and silent and everyone’s into it except me. They’ll have some guff that means something personal to them. They sounded like they were laughing and crying. I couldn’t even laugh when everyone else was, except before we were supposed to start, and before the class. Could laugh then. Not now. Here, bored. Horrid, dull, does nothing for me, want to look at the clock. Alex coughs, someone sighs, still scribbling away, who’ll break first, a clearing of a throat, a shift of position, a pause. A shuffle, the heater blaring far away, ineffectual. Michael coughs, a tap of a foot. Oh God make this stop. What am I doing want to go home. Blah Blah Blah rah rah rah rubharb, rubarb, rubarb, Eric Sykes playing golf, rubarb, Hattie Jakes, how do you spell that. This could go on forever. What hell. What fresh hell is this. Etc. People still going. The freaks. Like some weird cult. Maybe Tom Cruise will join us next week, get us all laughing. That’d be interesting. Hmm, this isn’t stopping at all. Tum te tum. Er, maybe it’ll only stop when everyone stops writing, so I’d better stop I guess.
This is my mind on LISPA. OK, it’s not usually that bad. But despite the negativity I was quite pleased I hadn’t just given up and had used my frustration to write something down.
The next week we got into pairs and one person would read their free writing out to the other who would write down any words or phrases that jumped out at them. This was simply one way to pick out some bits to focus on as a start for lyric writing and I did much the same thing for myself:
- No laughter
- Can’t out here
- Can’t be me
- Whatever it means
- On and on
- Books and on
- Oh tear from my eye
- Still quiet and silent
- I couldn’t even laugh
- Could laugh then
- Not now
- There’s nothing for me
- Someone sighs
- Who’ll break first?
- A pause, a shuffle
- A tap of a foot
- Eric Sykes playing golf
- Hattie Jakes
- What fresh hell is this?
The phrases in bold are ones I marked as favourites. Then I put a few things together into a few short lines:
Who’ll break first?
A pause, a shuffle,
A tap of a foot.
That was OK, but I wasn’t sure it was really going anywhere as a song. I had a couple more abortive attempts during which I didn’t do much more than stare at a piece of paper. The night before we were due to sing our songs to the rest of the group I tried again, and listened to a few songs I liked for inspiration. I was surprised that after all this I managed to come up with a few more meaningful lines without too much struggle:
I could laugh back then but I can’t laugh now.
Stuck in a stable space and I don’t know how
To do what’s being asked of dead keen devotees,
All of them inspired while my feelings freeze.
This felt better — it had more of a theme than the previous attempt and felt more like proper lyrics. Obviously only a fraction of it comes directly from the free writing but it was handy to have those as a starting point.
In a bit of a rush, I moved straight on to trying to create a tune. The process Simon suggested for this was to speak a line a few times and begin emphasising the way you naturally say it, identifying where your pitch goes up and down. From this you can begin to extract some kind of tune.
Throwing caution to the wind, here’s an MP3 of me singing the thing. The first half I followed the above idea, but then the second half of the tune fell into place a bit too easily — it seems like a pat indie rock kind of thing that isn’t original but that I also can’t shake from my head and come up with anything more distinctive. Its two-note “tune” also reminds me of the songs the “band” I was in when I was 10 years old used to come up with, so I’m not sure my songwriting has magically improved over the past quarter century.
Other people managed to create much more complete songs, and in some cases much more beautiful tunes. Some were a bit shakey, the lyrics of others were a bit painful, but others were not only very good but sung beautifully. I also wasn’t the only one to give vent in song to their negative experiences of the process. Part of me wishes I’d stuck with it and finished my song, and the other part of me is glad the term is about to end and I don’t need to think about it (or Kinespheres) for a couple of weeks.