I was at an art gallery last weekend and noticed that many modern paintings are, of course, “non-representational,” i.e., they are not “realistic”–they do not “represent” anything that you or I could see in the real world. I’m no art historian, but this started maybe with the French Impressionists, who painted real scenes, but did not try simply to paint what they literally saw, like a photograph. They painted the “impressions” of what they saw, that is, how it made them feel. In a way, it was more “real” than real, because they helped the viewer of their paintings jump a level: a photograph of a powerful scene must rely on the photographer’s compositional skills, how the scene is framed, the time of day the photo was snapped (which determines the lighting), etc., thus hoping to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer. But the Impressionists painted what they saw and felt, allowing their interpretation of the emotional impact of the scene in front of them to affect their depiction of the scene. So they were leading the viewers of their paintings along in a certain direction, hoping (if the painting were a good one) to reproduce in the viewer that same emotion that the painter had when viewing the scene.
Eventually, all pretense of representation went out the window, so that now there are large canvasses simply of colored blotches, squares, or lines, artfully arranged, perhaps also evoking a strong emotion in the viewer. All this is done with no references to the “real world.”
What has this to do with songwriting? Simply this: when structuring a popular song lyric, it is virtually taken for granted that 100% of the lyrics will be “representational” of the real world, by telling a story that makes logical sense. Bob Dylan was one of the first to use cryptic lyrical references, requiring almost a Codex to understand them. The psychedelic rock composers went another step, allowing their drug-induced visions to inform their lyrics: “Lucy in the sky with diamonds..” Say what?
So I’m proposing that it is certainly possible for a mainstream song to be other than literal, one which can evoke a powerful emotion by the combination of words, melody, tone of voice of the singer, and background instrumentation, without the lyrics being totally logical or “realistic.” Such a song would be like the Impressionists’ work: mostly representational but with flurries or forays away from literal/logical phrases. At the conclusion of the song, the listener may not have a clear idea of exactly what the song was about, but is left with a strong emotion, be it longing, peacefulness, anger, or love.
Now, I don’t think the general public is quite ready for the songwriting equivalent of Jackson Pollock, i.e., splotches of unrelated words or even non-word sounds, but maybe, as in the visual arts world, someday songs will be written like that.
For now, I think a touch of “non-representational” expression can add a lot to certain types of songs. I know; I’ve already written some like that!
My cousin, Ira, who knows about these things, made the following comments to the above:
“It was the post-Impressionists who paved the way to non-representational art. Gauguin, Bernard, Serusier, et al., realized that art could approach the state of music. That is, since music could move the imagination and feelings without representing anything in the visible world, so could painting if one used color emotionally, free of the object it was intended to represent. Color became the equivalent of tone.
The pioneers of abstraction, e.g., Kandinsky, Kupka, and Ciurlionis, experienced synaesthesia, the sensation of seeing colors when hearing music and vice-versa. [interestingly, they, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, et al., did not see the same colors for the same notes]. So it was music that gave rise to abstract and non-objective art.
As for non-objective texts, the Dada and Futurist poets invented new languages and expression. Check the poetry of Filippo Marinetti, Kurt Schwitters or Velimir Khlebnikov.”
My follow-up comments to Ira’s are (i) it’s fascinating that music, which of course, by itself, is ALWAYS non-representational, inspired the painters to become so, (ii) pure poetry (unattached to music) evidently has already experimented with non-representationalism, and (iii) I know of no LYRICS that do so, certainly not in any popular music!