The visual arts decorate space. The aural arts decorate time. I spend my life trying to connect the two.
When I was younger, around 5 or 6, I started to express myself through drawing. It wasn’t anything more than pictures of superheroes and other characters from the stories I imagined, but I loved it. It was real to me. I remember my parents having to sit me down and gently tell me that we couldn’t actually go fight crime at night as a superhero family dressed in matching pterodactyl costumes. I was sitting on the stairs after that intervention holding the drawings I had done of our outfits, unable to understand and unable to stop crying. That story has two takeaways. One, I would visualize images, stories, and things in my mind and then have to put them into a physical form. And two, I had a tough time grasping reality. The later is definitely a personal problem so I think we’ll just focus on the first one.
As I got older and began using different mediums, the mental images that I would put down became more complex and had more depth. My favorite medium to use was, and still is, acrylic paint on a large canvas. It allows you to endlessly build layers of paint and color without the colors bleeding together too much. I looked to Jackson Pollack for inspiration. His work is literally just a build up of interwoven paint drippings that are colored differently to create depth, dimension, and mood. He would continue with different colored paints until the mood was right. There is little to no form in his paintings. He is abstract to the extreme. You might not like Jackson Pollack’s paintings, many people don’t. But what they taught me was the importance of layering in artistic work.
With the drip style paintings, you make a choice in the beginning as to which color comes first and from there you add dozens more. But the layers and colors over lap, sit on top of, and next to one another so each color choice needs to work harmoniously with the previous one as well as the next. I tried to implement this method into my own paintings and it eventually worked its way into the music I write.
If visual art is something that I’ve done for most of my life then music has only been with me for half of it. I didn’t know it was such a part of me until my teen years when my dad showed me albums by the Police and Elvis Costello. Only then was my musical urge switched on. You hear stories of Mozart being a prolific and virtuosic child and that’s just not something I can relate to. Creating music has always been a struggle for me. I have trouble getting my vision and the music in my head into a tangible form. I think it was important for me to begin with visual art so that I could more easily understand music and how to write it. I now listen to music and try to perceive it as if it were a landscape painting with a foreground, middle ground, and background. The modern age of music caters to that concept with something called a Digital Audio Workshop. Back in the early days of recorded music, all the musicians would set up in a large room and play the songs together with everything set up to record it all at once. With new technology, things are recorded separately and each waveform shows up in the Digital Audio Workshop to create a sort of linear canvas.
I personally enjoy this flexibility and workflow when trying to write and arrange a song from scratch. I am able to go back and think of each instrument and voice as a separate color and layer. I’m not actually seeing colors though, more like tones and parts. But in the music realm, people have developed a vocabulary of very visual and physical words, such as dark, thick, sharp, and warm, to describe the invisible aural arts. Maybe others have had the same difficulties as I have.
Something else that helps me with writing and arranging my songs is trying to imagine them as geological cross sections. Vertical slices through the earth and then continuing up until you get to the foliage, the tops of the trees, or the sky depending on how many layers the song has. For example, I might start with the drums or the initial rhythm parts for the bedrock then the bass as the subsoil. Next is the rhythm guitar for the topsoil and it just continues from there. I certainly don’t think everyone should be doing this, mainly because I don’t know if this makes any sense at all. It’s not traditional, that’s for sure. The purists of the music world would say that the best music comes from a group of great musicians in a room vibing with each other. And I don’t think that’s wrong at all, but I’ve found that I can understand music better through this more fragmented and visual method. And starting with a visual background made that possible.