This is my song writing time of year. I’m writer in residence for the Da Capo Music Foundation and we’re in the run-up to the annual summer school which always features a new suite of songs – music by composer in residence John Ashton Thomas, words by me. I’ve just finished this year’s lyrics, and I’ve been reflecting on what this exercise involves, and what it teaches me about writing more generally.
It’s an unusual task in many ways. Where most songs are pre-existing text set to music, here the music comes first (this is a music teaching course and the pieces are deliberately written to explore particular time signatures, rhythm patterns, keys and so on). This means that I work within a very tight framework: the music dictates the words not just in terms of general mood and atmosphere, but down to the precise details of, for example, the number of syllables and where weak and strong beats occur (which is often not where they would naturally occur in a sentence…)
So this act of writing is highly constrained: it feels a bit like doing a crossword, or one of those puzzles where you have to arrange geometrical shapes so they fit into a frame – and still, at the end, it’s got to sound and feel something like poetry.
In practice how this all works is that I receive PDFs of the scores (empty of words, but with my name optimistically already inscribed at the top) and sound files. I start by listening to the sound files a few times, to get a sense of the feel of each piece and to develop some initial ideas for theme and tone (a little bit easier this year than usual, since the music’s based around the first book in my trilogy, Assalay). At this stage, I go through the scores too, and work out the structure of each piece. Then I flounder for any meaningful text that will work in, for example, 5/4 time with a strong word on the first and third beats of each bar. Sometimes I can’t think of anything, sometimes I come up with a line or two of – invariably – rubbish.
There’s usually a minor existential crisis at this point, generally involving wine.
I listen to the sound files again, often half consciously now, while doing other things. Cleaning. Riding buses. Falling asleep. I wait. Slowly, words suggest themselves; in fragments, unfinished. I go back to the scores and try to fit these vague ideas to the concrete structure of bars and notes. I swear at the over- or under-supply of syllables; I search out synonyms for words that don’t quite fit; I google lists of possible rhymes. I struggle to an inelegant unsatisfying solution. And then – at some point – it happens: things shift, change, fall into place and it’s there: the right mood, the right shape and stresses, and maybe, even, a little poetry.
In terms of writing more generally, it’s a micro study, I guess, in the nature of creative work: that exchange between two equally essential elements. There’s the the conscious, humdrum effort with paper, book and pen (numbering the bars, working out where the strong beats are and where the rhymes will fall, studying the rhyming dictionary and thesaurus). Then there’s the half dream state; all that stuff that doesn’t feel like work at all; the unfocused moments away from desk and keyboard, where nothing observable is happening – and without which I would still, now, not have finished the job.
And, yes, there are dragons.