Matthew Sigmon is an Atlanta area based artist whose creative range includes songwriting and recording in a variety of genres as well as graphic artwork and writing. In 1990, Sigmon’s interest in ambient composition inspired the highly regarded 30-minute instrumental “Sleeping Through The Rain”, followed by additional titles in subsequent years. In the early 90′s, studio work and performances with guitarist Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow, Don Henley) and drummer Sean O’Rourke (Sugarland) resulted in the album Touvaroon, with Sigmon’s first solo CD, One Opens Up, being released in 2006. In recent years, additional work as a broadcast technician (Olympics, NBA, NFL, MLB, FIBA) has allowed him to travel around the world.
Back when I was in a band and performing live music, I occasionally opened shows by announcing, “In the interest of full disclosure I want you to know the songs we’re about to play aren’t real. We just made them up.” It yielded amusement and head scratching in about equal measure. Despite the fact that I was making a joke, it still highlighted an important issue that all artists have to contend with in one way or another: Is the work I’m producing genuinely substantial, and what is it that makes a creative expression valid?
In last month’s column we looked at the basic creative impulse behind all of this, and how artists driven to make stuff may be particularly sensitive to the evolutionary energy of expansion. But recognizing, accepting and acting on your own creative instinct is not the end of a story, but rather the beginning of ten thousand more, and in every one of them the hero (that’s you) wants to know that what he or she is creating really counts. Legitimacy is a sticky topic when it comes to art, and a serious investigation of it is bound to take you down roads of deep introspection before dragging you all the way back into the clamor of conventionality with its endless opinions of what is and isn’t “good”. If it’s consensus you want, the only objective benchmark that holds up is how a wide sample of people respond to what you’ve made over time. But as far as the edification of your artistic soul is concerned, that’s between you and the spark of inspiration the Muse has been kind enough to place in your care.
It may seem to be off the topic a bit, but there’s a story I can relate that gets to the heart of authenticity. My dad used to dabble with playing classical guitar, but he wasn’t very good at it. He could read music well enough and attempted the same dozen or so pieces over and over and over throughout my childhood years. The thing is, his sense of timing was absolutely terrible, like some awful temporal variation on tone deafness. And what’s worse is he played this gorgeous Martin 00-28C he bought in ’67, which I now have, an exquisite instrument that for ten brutal years was forced to belch out an endless parade of lurching renditions of otherwise really beautiful songs. I’d been playing drums since the age of five, so he regularly enlisted me to help him count his way through rhythmic purgatory. I understood the timing of music and could tap out a steady beat for him to follow, but I felt like a kid trying to direct a blind guy with a net to catch fireflies. Even if he got one he didn’t know it unless I told him, and that kind of luck was rarely on his side. Dad thought I could help him “impose” the framework of timing on his playing, but just picking the (mostly) right notes when someone else says you should doesn’t mean you have rhythm. If you can’t feel it for yourself, then the best you can hope for is to simulate the thing you’re trying to achieve, and what’s the point in that? The same holds true for hitting the target of authenticity in your own creative expressions.
Too many times I’ve been sought out by people who claim to be “working up a song”, asking for feedback on how the results might be enhanced or improved. On the face of it, this appears to be a mature way to approach the craft of songwriting as a serious, open minded student that’s willing to learn. But as harsh as it may sound, it strikes me as a futile waste of time and a complete distraction from the defining point and purpose of creativity. My usual response in such a situation is along the lines of, “Did you write it the way you wanted to?” While this doesn’t provide the kind of help that most in this predicament are looking for, that is what it comes down to, isn’t it? It’s your inspiration after all, your idea, your song and your music, right? Or is it? It could be taxidermy instead. Let me explain. You want to write a song, but for whatever reason the creative process isn’t forthcoming. So, you decide to follow a list of guidelines that describe the general specifications for the type of song you think you’d like to write. You tack together the structural skeleton with most of the right bones in roughly the right places, stuff it with approved chords and bind it all together with a melody picked from the appropriate scale. Finally you spruce up the outside with performance styles that sound just like stuff you’d expect to hear in a “good tune”, but is that what you really have? The Field Guide to Properly Written Songs may identify your handiwork as exactly that, but if you can’t feel it yourself, if you’re still wondering if you’ve hit the mark, there’s a good chance it’s a rhythmic carcass on a stick. Sure, it may be the size and shape of a song, but if you can’t see it breathing or put your finger on its pulse, it’s dead, man, it’s taxidermy.
Creativity is synonymous with originality, and if that’s your goal, the only way to produce it is to express what genuinely comes up and through your own interior, if and when it does, rather than manufacture an item that conforms to some external, conventionally accepted prescription for “good” work. The former is the inspired gift and a challenge every artist has to learn to invoke and dance with, but in my opinion the latter is taxidermy. There’s no way to avoid getting into semantics here, so for the sake of this discussion, let’s say there’s a distinct difference between creating something on the one hand, and manufacturing it on the other. Creation is, in some significant capacity, an expansion, the conduction of authentically original content. And it’s important to note that even truly original music will inevitably be inspired by and reminiscent of other work to some degree, but it still brings with it a quality that transcends its references, a breathing, living energy that illuminates something of the mystical medium of our own experience when that work becomes a part of it.
In contrast, an attempt to manufacture a song from the rules and guidelines of music theory often produces an homage to music rather than music itself, a subtle but important distinction. And I’m happy to concede that careful manufacture has it’s own kind of merit, but on the basis of creative spark, it’s lifelike appearance doesn’t hold up once you get close enough to touch it and realize it’s as stiff and cold as a tombstone. I don’t read music and I’m not well versed in theory. I know one scale and I have never consciously used it or the knowledge it represents in writing any song, ever. Not once. It’s not that I hold anything against these disciplines in and of themselves, it’s just that when I did encounter them in the course of my journey through musical expression, I failed to find them helpful or relevant to the task of doing what it was I knew I wanted to do, which was turn out the songs I heard in my mind. The rules of music theory are like the laws we find in physics or chemistry in that they describe dynamics, relationships and behaviors we can observe in the real world. It’s a kind of cartography, a digestible representation of the mysterious activity unfolding as the fabric of our very being, right now, in this moment, and this one. And this one, too.
In the wondrous realm of your own subjectivity, you are witnessing a ceaseless flow of authentic originality right now in the form of continually unfolding experience. This is the source and raw material of your next new song, and we don’t know what limits, if any, there are to what can be brought forth if we embrace it, cooperate with it and nurture it. My dad was looking in the wrong place for the unmistakable pulse of authentic rhythm in the same way that many aspiring songwriters imagine that it’s the exterior measurements of the composition that determine its intrinsic validity. Next time you wonder if your work is good enough, by all means see how others are moved by what you create. But first don’t forget to ask the only person who will ever really know the answer to that question. You.