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October 17, 2016

SWAN | The Notes that Inspire a Thousand Words

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It’s a grand old time. I stand at the edge of the dance floor, that ambiguous event horizon beyond which lies the vociferous, collective rampage of too many young people crowded into too small a square. That’s an alienating sight, especially to the likes of an introverted Pisces such as myself. Besides the massive swarm of individuals and their sick dance moves, perhaps the most antagonizing gesture is the rapid fire of ironic lip-syncing to songs with lyrics to which I have never given thought or bothered to discern. Sometimes a light shines out in the wilderness and a certain song plays, the lowest common denominator, that even the most reserved folks know and love (“SO BABY PULL ME CLOSER IN THE BACKSEAT OF YOUR ROVER…”). Nevertheless, that saving grace must eventually dim, and suddenly I am back to disappointing my peers by failing to recite every word to whatever Kanye West tune is currently playing.

The lyrics of popular music can be fine poetic representations of their writers’ perceptions and feelings about contemporary trends and events. That fact was indicated just this past week, when Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for the summation of his extensive folk lyrical pieces. Yet, I am indeed a musician surrounded by lyricists. Looking through the “notes” folder on my phone, I found a terse fragment that I felt inspired to write at some point earlier this year: “Half of my life is people singing at me.” This exaggerated tidbit of mock-poetic banter still contains in it some truth. The lyrics of even my favorite artists often float way above my head, like pieces of cosmic stardust that have not quite landed in elemental, earthly form. In the above paragraph, if one were to change the setting from “2016 college party” to “senior prom” or “freshman homecoming dance,” the experience would not be different in the slightest. This is certainly not a unique or unfathomable trait, as many individuals with classically sculpted backgrounds in instrumental performance and musical taste often seem to possess an ear that only focuses on the content underneath the vocal track. (I once knew a bassist who would describe a song to someone by humming and air-plucking a bass guitar.) We listen to the vocal content as its own instrument, its contour and inflection mere additions to the more important happenings elsewhere in the piece.

Despite my stronger affinity for listening to music, many of my closest musical friends are vocalists and thus possess their own inclination to give closer attention to lyrics. The marked differences in how we enjoy various songs is often fascinating, if not hilarious. In some cases, there are entire musical acts that I dislike due to unappealing music but that my friends love because of some awe-inspiring lyrical genius. One such group is the Foo Fighters (don’t worry, I ducked when I typed that). Despite the group’s superstar magnitude and fantastic lineup, I don’t find the bulk of their power-chord driven material to be so aurally stimulating. But Dave Grohl’s lyrics are vindicated by all of his fans. Take, for example, “Everlong.” Although one of Grohl’s most genuine verses, its rhythmic and instrumental banality resemble to me a loud form white noise.

There is, however, a certain degree of underlying irony in the case of lyrics or music and it lies in the realm classical piano repertoire. While reading a ballade by Chopin, I was once instructed to sing along with the melody of the phrase, imagining that I were a nineteenth century vocalist performing a love song or lyrical work. Since that lesson, I have found this technique to be a critical component in realizing wordless classical melodies, as it adds to them an important degree of humanity. Once a pianist masters such a passage, this poetic version of the melody will likely be an internalized factor of their performance, as it certainly was for me. A similar practice occurs within improvisatory jazz solos. These musicians often describe the development of one’s solo as an enduring conversation or debate between individuals, with its own climax and conclusion.

What is the implication of this connection between wordless musical epics and the mental formation of relevant lyrics or scenarios? In a sense, it forms the notion that lyrics and music are complementary entities of the same vision. Furthermore, it indicates that the elements of musical statements can be altered to produce profound and continuous cerebral narratives in the mind of its listeners (or players), in the same way that “a picture paints a thousand words.” These subtle inspirations are vastly personal, as they were formed by the impartial aspects of musical sonority. Although I miss out on some epic bouts of lip-syncing, I do not anticipate conceding my world of the musical for that of the lyrical.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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