Pina Bausch – Soak it All In
Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process. So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us. Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’ll be publishing some of those writings in the coming weeks. Thank you, Ian!
Last year, I had the opportunity to see Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch perform Vollmond at the National Arts Centre. It was a spectacular show with an amazing set and music design. At one moment I felt I was in the world of Godot. At another moment I was one of the disenfranchised of the world. There was the world of the ordinary and mundane, the world of romance and sexuality, violence and brutality, the world of the extraordinary, everyday life, life on the edge – all these worlds crashing splashing, colliding and intersecting each other, all in an exhausting expression of dance, theatre, display, music sound and light. Oh yes and water!
It did not attempt to make linear sense, but in that it was all about the human spirit, it made sense in the most profound way. It was in every way similar to the detail of songwriting.
When Pina Bausch began her work in choreography, she observed the everyday details of people’s ordinary movements, hand gestures, a turn of the head, a glance, a way of walking. She incorporated these commonplace movements into her dance. She repeated them. She exaggerated them. She turned them on their head. In the coming months, I challenge you to become a dedicated observer of the human drama. Watch people’s movements. Listen to their stories, the simple observation of the way a person walks down a street can be a story. It can be a song, or it can be incorporated into a song. The mundane and ordinary dictates of daily life, when focused, repeated, can be lifted up to a more profound observation of the way we live our lives.
“Woke up, got out of bed, ran a comb across my head -f(aster, faster)…”
We continue to be compelled by stories, and in some cases, it is often about how an old story is told in a new way. As I watched Pina Bausch, I could certainly see in her work elements of Beckett, certainly Edward Munch was there as well as Dali and Duchamp, but she brought something new to this line. When I consider much of Leonard Cohen’s work, he draws from the big tent of the Old Testament, archetypal stories on mortality, revenge, love and morality to a very modern and tired world. Dylan’s spin on Cain and Abel set on Highway 61 uses a similar analogue with a very contemporary setting. Paul Simon has done the same. Like Pina Bausch, these guys play in the “big tent” of big ideas. Don’t be afraid of the big tent, but equally, know that giants have gone before you. The old stories have lasted for a reason: they are big stories.
It seems to me that each art form has a similar entry point to the telling of a story, be it a painting, photograph, play, etc. It might be true even of the making of a ceramic vase. Try to translate the photographer’s methodology into songwriting. Try to develop the eye of the photographer, and use some of the photographer’s techniques in your songwriting. It is another way of observing, and I might contend that the slightly detached way of observing through the lens suits the detachment of the modern world. I could equally propose you put yourself in the position of a short story writer or a painter.
In other words use other disciplines to expand, sharpen and focus your work as a songwriter. Visit other disciplines – dance, art, theatre photography, books, other types of music. Bring those offerings back to your songwriting. I don’t mean literally, like Don Maclean’s “Vincent” (Starry Starry Night), but more like osmosis, soaking it up. Certainly as you listen to the work of Van Morrison, you can hear his influences as he includes their names in dozens of his songs: William Blake, John Dunne, and Rimbaud, to name but a few. In Bob Dylan’s wonderful memoir Chronicles Part One, Bob talks about his insatiable appetite for music, literature, the classics – well, everything. Though there are different takes on his stealing of 450 albums, he justified the taking as part of his need to absorb. His need was encyclopedic in scope. One later story recounts when Dylan was travelling in Ireland with Paul Brady and Bono, his knowledge of obscure traditional Irish music challenged his two hosts! For Joni Mitchell, clearly the world of paint and jazz profoundly influenced her work as much as the music she was surrounded with. The whole world of the New York art scene surrounding Andy Warhol affected Lou Reed, Tom Verlane, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, and Bob Dylan as well. Even Blondie.
As an exercise, take a look at the work of photographers like Walker Evans, Ansell Adams or Vivian Maier or think of yourself as the camera sailing through the skylight in Citizen Cain. Let their eyes guide you through a song – very different and very much the same.
In an ironic side note to this article, a few months after seeing Pina Bausch, I happened to see Justin Beiber singing his song “Sorry” on the Grammys. The song was a totally manipulative effort to rehab him from his bad boy phase. Apparently it worked. As part of his performance, he used the same technique of a waterfall on the set as Pina Bausch had used so effectively with her dance company. Justin’s dance moves created wings of water effect similar to the dance company, and the “rain,” of course, heightened the notion of his regret. I was nearly ill watching the Beiber, but at the same time, I was equally amazed that someone on his team or tech crew had been looking laterally at a foreign dance company.