Sunday, April 04, 2004

Define "self-indulgent"

I heard a really invigorating concert at Davies Hall Friday night. Esa-Pekka Salonen was the San Francisco Symphony's guest conductor that night, and the whole program was high-energy. They played A Night on Bald Mountain, the Mussorgsky chestnut I remember improvising to as a kid in ballet class; a piece that the conductor himself composed, called Insomnia; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat (with Yefim Bronfman playing the solo); and Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. Not even the guy sitting next to me, who clearly didn't want to be there and kept looking at his watch, could have fallen asleep during that gig.

I'm kind of cynical by nature about certain things and I wondered, when I saw the piece Insomnia on the program, whether it would be substantive or just self-indulgent. When the time came, I actually really liked it. Parts of it were really good sonic reproductions of late-night motorhead. Other parts of it were very loud and aggressive and not what I'd automatically think of when I would look back on my own late-night experiences, but I guess they were evocative of severe inner torment. Self-indulgent, though, it was not.

That made me wonder what exactly constitutes self-indulgence. I have discarded or rewritten a lot of lyrics over the years in an effort NOT to be self-indulgent. The standard I've worked with is, if it's likely nobody else but you knows what you're talking about, you'd better rewrite it. I know a lot of lyricists don't bother to do this but I feel it's important. One reason is, if you reveal too many specifics about what's informing your work, the listener may (a) find nothing in it to relate to, or (b) be embarrassed by your revelation, because s/he doesn't know you, and why should you be so familiar with your communication?

I have a very strong feeling that not all journal entries should be set to music. (Especially not this one.;) ) Yet, what the Muse offers you in times of your greatest torment or greatest joy may be the most original, or the most universal, statement you have to offer. On Diogenes I let my tunes be informed by very specific trauma, but I edited the lyrics so that they would be more obscure, less embarrassing, etc. (If you find them over-specific and/or embarrassing now, imagine how bad it was before I edited them!!!) For my lyrics to sound like something written by Staind, would be really wrong, I think.

Chrissie Hynde once said, "Ray Douglas Davies is the only songwriter who can write confessional lyrics without being embarrassing." I think "embarrassing" what I'm offering up as the definition of "self-indulgent". So does that mean "my heart on my sleeve" is also a synonym for "self-indulgent"? I think what I'm trying to say is, the music is more important than the self. I am trying to share my music, rather than just share my Self. It would be inappropriate to share my Self with many, many people I don't know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with Chrissy Hynde. I think Joni Mitchell does a good job of being confessional without being self-indulgent. Maybe songwriters should worry less about that and just write what's in the heart. If anything, I think most of the music out there today doesn't say anything at all because people are too afraid to be open or they have to be politically correct.