Standing on the Shoulders that Stood on the Shoulders of Giants

I've been listening avidly to a CD from 2004, A.C. Newman's The Slow Wonder. Newman writes about 75 percent of the songs on the New Pornographers' disks, including vehicles like "Bones of an Idol" and "Laws Have Changed" for that wondrous chanteuse, Neko Case. Newman's style is unmistakable, but he never repeats himself. That, to me, is the sign of a timeless pop talent.

AC Newman.jpgListening to Newman, you can pick up some of his influences, especially Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney. Like his mentors' best music, Newman's songs are light and enjoyable on the surface, but the melodies are laid over a structure of complex harmonies, driving beats and odd arrangements that recall Wilson's masterpiece, Pet Sounds.

The difference is that each of Newman's major influences were, themselves, the products of the music that came before them. Brian Wilson listened to Chuck Berry and the Four Freshman. Newman was born two years after Pet Sounds came out. McCartney listened to English music-hall tunes and Little Richard. Newman was born the year "Hey Jude" was released. Bacharach worshipped Dizzy Gillespie and studied under French orchestral composer Darius Milhaud. These writers built some of the greatest pop music ever heard by synthesizing distinct, even incongruent strains of authentic, music never intended for wide audiences.

American/British pop music is omniverous. Over the years it has absorbed all sorts of folk traditions, adopting sounds second- and third-hand, then going abroad to find more untainted sources to borrow. By now, if there is a unique sound anywhere in the world that hasn't been incorporated into a pop or dance tune, extremely shy people must be making it. That makes today an extremely challenging time for pop music writers. The rise of a talent like A.C. Newman proves there is room for originality, but he will never have the luxury of melding his style with something no one's heard before.

This is all a long prologue to writing a few words about my son. One of my readers asked me to go back to a topic I've written about once — my 15-year-old son's artistic pursuits. So here goes.

Since he was very young, this boy has gone from obsession to obsession, and these obsessions have been the source — the only source, really — of his creativity. The interesting problem for me, as a parent, is what happens when my son is not obsessed.

He started with a pen, drawing with what I thought was prodigious skill during his first 12 or 13 years. But he refused to take an art lesson. He knew what he wanted to draw–Disney characters, and sometimes characters of his own. He figured out how to draw them, and worked very hard at it. "You need art lessons. You need to learn shading," I'd admonish him. A few days later, he'd show me another drawing, this one with shading. "Your drawings are two-dimensional, we should get you an art class to learn to show dimension." Within days, he had figured out dimension. Anything to avoid art lessons.

Eventually he moved his drawings into the computer. He learned how to use Flash and then other animation programs. He still takes digital animation classes in school, where he is a source of frustration to his teacher, as he gives himself more difficult assignments than she gives him–and then can't finish them.

Over the past year, his interests shifted to drama, particularly musical theater. He got cast in one musical, then another, and now he's in another. Animation, the dream of his young life, took second place. Then third place. For years, he's had a little electric piano in his room. He had taken piano lessons years ago, but I stopped them when it was apparent he would never practice. I was never sure he even learned to read music.

Now, he's trying to write his own musicals. Strange stories about murder and neglected children, with ominous, dissonant songs that he's writing on a keyboard I didn't realize he knew how to play; digging into an old rhyming dictionary to help with the lyrics; using his animation programs' audio features to record multi-tracked vocal harmonies. My wife and I frequently will be sitting in bed late at night, suddenly aware of these spooky sounds — like bees stuck in molasses — coming from next door. It's the artist at work.

sondheim.jpgMy son's latest inspiration is Stephen Sondheim, lyricist for West Side Story, and composer/lyricist of a string of challenging, highly original shows like Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. Sondheim — like Brian Wilson, like Burt Bacharach, is a writer who created something by blending traditions. He was taught first by Oscar Hammerstein II, composer of classic shows like Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific, then by Milton Babbit, whose claim to fame is a body of atonal and electronic works in the 12-tone style pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. Many of Sondheim's musicals express the duality of his influences. He is steeped in the emotions, the staginess, the razz-ma-tazz of Broadway, but ofttimes his songs are dark, bleak and tuneless. Sweeney Todd, his greatest work, is about a murderous, avenging barber and the woman who bakes pies out of the resulting corpses. There are beautiful love songs in this show, but the melodies reflect the madness and blood-lust of the hero and heroine.

My son has memorized many of Sondheim's songs, and sings along with them on his mp3 player while he's doing his homework. He's familiar with other recent shows by newer composers, like Urinetown, Avenue Q, Rent, Wicked, and of course the Disney movie musicals — but he asked me the other day whether Carousel was any good. To my son, the shows that comment on, satirize, steal or upend the canon of musicals from Broadway's golden age are the canon. The classics — he admires the ones he's heard, but he feels no urgency about learning from them.

Just as A.C. Newman, asked about the influences on the New Pornographers, said this (emphasis mine):

“Various unintentional influences have crept into our work, some of which are quickly removed: The Moody Blues, Tubeway Army, Wings, always Wings, never The Beatles, Eno of course, you can’t play ebow without sounding like Eno, Modern English, middle period post-Gabriel Genesis, The Stranglers, the vocal inflections on “Dreadlock Holiday” remain a steady influence, we’re still trying to find a way to insert some dub/white reggae in the mix, just as an intellectual exercise, to see if we can do it without being dropped from the label. I know it sounds awful but it will all work out.”

To music fans of my generation, anyone who prefers Wings to the Beatles is demonstrably insane (and Newman is at least half-joking). But then, I wasn't born in 1968. Likewise, it makes perfect sense for my son to see Stephen Sondheim as Square One, and to hear his once-controversial music not as the end of musical evolution, but as the starting point. To an artist with fresh eyes and ears, any point can be a starting point.

When my son takes his creations out into the world, he'll face stiff competition from people who gave themselves over to their teachers more, who know more, and who have made the sacrifices needed to develop basic techniques that he skipped over. He knows that, but so far, he hasn't changed course. The obsessed might be maddening at times, but they've got a kind of integrity, and from where I sit, a few feet from his bedroom door, it's amazing to watch it play out.

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