Originally published at The Casey Stratton Blog. You can comment here or there.
“I consider the first 20 performances just learning the piece. Think about it this way: If you think about a pianist who plays a Schubert sonata through his whole lifetime — if you listen to Rubenstein or Horowitz playing their repertoire later in their life, you understand the richness with which they play that music, and how differently they must have played it when they were younger. … I think it’s only after about 20 performances that we begin to understand what the dynamic structure of the piece is.”
I read this quote on Tumblr this morning and it made a lot of sense to me. Phillip Glass turned 75 yesterday so the internet was abuzz with links, stories and quotes. This one in particular spoke to me in a specific way.
As a songwriter who now has a home studio (I bought mine in October 2002 so it has been nearly 10 years) I tend to record songs just as they are written. In the old days I’d have to wait weeks to months to get in a studio and record songs so I tended to have played them more often before the immortal recording was executed (yes, I am aware of the paradox of my word choice there.). Yet now it is more likely that the recording you hear is the very first rendering of the new song. You could argue for or against this for artistic reasons, but for the sake of this blog I will focus solely on this being ‘the way it is’ and how a song changes once you start playing it live.
I find that when I play live shows and start adding new songs in, they begin to take on a new shape. This begins in rehearsal so I know it is not merely the adrenaline rush of an audience influencing it. This is where Mr. Glass’ quote got my attention. I knew exactly what he meant. Dynamics tend to emerge that were not my original intent, per se. It will just feel like it wants to go where it goes. And generally once I find a particular phrasing or change to the original dynamic pleasing to me, I will play the song that way from then on. I can listen to early live recordings of songs only played a few times and the dynamics will be different every time as I am finding my way into it, but later recordings will almost always have the same dynamics. This is not to say that the performance is always the same or that I never stray in any way – part of the beauty of live performing is going where the musical wind takes you – but the gist will nearly always stay the same. The songs seem to find their groove and finally nestle into their true structures. Again – I call it “what they really want.”
This is also the key to being a good producer. The songs “know what they want” if you pay attention. Your job is to try to make that happen. Using your tools properly will get you off the ground, but your instincts will kick in and tell you what is or is not working. If it feels off to you, it will most likely feel off to others. If you are not happy with it, you should change direction. You can adjust basically any song to any style preference or aesthetic, but it will know what it wants in each genre you choose.
Back to performing your own songs though, I find that there is a very fulfilling feeling when a song finds its groove. I have a song called Hollow that has seen many incarnations, but the piano/vocal live version has taken on a life of its own over the years, and it feels like an old friend now. I don’t play it a lot, but when I do it’s because I am really wanting the comfort of the space it’s in now.
I may sound silly personifying songs, but most composers feel that our compositions are an extension of ourselves as well as some sort of communion with whatever is out there in the universe or great beyond. I don’t need it to have a name, I just know it when I feel it. And I do personify them often because they are organic things, capable of growth. They breathe and change. They are fluid. You can speed them up and slow them down, make them lighter, make them darker. A subtle shift can change the way it’s heard dramatically. I find this to be very exciting!
In the end, it is quite the intimate journey to get to know your own work. How often have writers gone back to their words and thought “Oh so THAT’S what I was really talking about!” Lyrics do that to me all the time. I’ll read them years later and the light bulb comes on. The music can and does do the same thing. Sometimes I’ll hear something in the production that is so perfectly fitting to the lyric of a song, yet was completely unintentional when I did it. Of course, you can then regale your friends with the tales of your brilliance and they’ll never know it was a complete accident. Seriously though, we know the subconscious mind works in complex ways and it is interesting to see it in action in a composition, performance or production.
Playing other people’s work takes many attempts to work out, to find the subtleties. It is no different with our own. In some ways it can be even harder to be objective. People ask me for advice about writing and performing all the time, and I almost always say the same thing. I think it applies here as well: Get out of your own way.