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“This is not a [book] to be taken lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.”
“Isn’t there a risk you run if you pre-occupy yourself with audience reaction?”
In this, the second part of Rod Serling’s Writing for Television, the conversation goes toward writing to please an audience. What happens when we write at a certain level and with a certain expectation?
I think the question is most definitely a valid one, but I might further the question by wondering out loud, does the answer vary across artistic mediums? Is it different for a screenwriter than it is for a novelist? A songwriter?
I think the difference between writing toward an audience today, versus Serling’s era, is the way marketing has become not only a significant aspect of how a story might be told, but whether your story is told at all. This isn’t to say that in television and cinema in particular, there haven’t always been craftspersons who have created works with the ultimate goal of profiting from them, but now in our modern era, it has become more and more the case that “story is product”. If story starts out as “product”, does it not by nature become derivative as stories are created for the sole purpose of creating the by-products of merchandising, sequels and other modes of commerce?
Does it not degrade the craft and art in storytelling to create a story out of a marketing concept, rather than actually figuring out ways to market great stories?
Starting this week, I thought I would post Rod Serling’s “Writing for Television” series of conversations which were filmed toward the end of his life. In the first part, Rod discusses with some of his students the concept of “Where Ideas Come From”. Serling sounds both practical and mystic in this short. Certainly, many might be tempted to argue with his perspective, however it does give one a bit more insight about the man responsible for creating The Twilight Zone.
Part I: Where Ideas Come From
Serling’s thoughts immediately reminded me of another writer’s viewpoint on the source of ideas and the nature of genius. Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) gave an inspiring talk at the 2009 TED conference in Long Beach, CA. Her “TED Talk” almost immediately became a web sensation. If you haven’t heard Gilbert’s talk, and you count yourself as a writer, artist or creator, you owe it to yourself to consider her ideas. . .
–Michael Joseph Jackson
We should all be so lucky not only to have achieved that sort of vision, but if more of us, humans alike carried with them that sort of vision, the world would be an even better place. I do believe however, that sort of vision lies ahead for all of us.
I am not the first person that one might imagine waxing poetic on the night of Michael Jackson‘s death. In fact, in the past I have joked about, derided, and thought and heard heavily critical things of the man. But I found myself really hit by Michael’s passing today. The only other passing that I have similar remembrances of, was that of Jim Henson.
I’ve never idolized the man. Nor have I ever looked at him through rose-colored glasses. I have never believed that he was anything more or less than human. Whether he was responsible for any of the things that he was accused of, I can only say that he, like any of us as fragile humans had the same capacity to fall down. Hard. . . And yes, to hurt others.
These past few years, as the media has fueled the sick fire of fascination in all of us, I came to feel sad for the man. Not pity, because that somehow brings a thought of being somehow above this man. We have all been damaged in this life, and as the coming days will show, there will be both soft and kind thoughts of this man, and there will be hard, angry and hate-filled words that will emerge. The energy from both of those sentiments prove our damaged-nature as individuals and as a collective. It is not our original nature, but to this day we suffer as a result of this damage.
I chose today, led by the sense in my heart, that the right thing to do is to look on him, and the legacy of his art, craft and philanthropy, with a soft heart. Not simply for the promise of cleansing his memory (and ours), but to help begin the healing of everyone’s hearts. For if not now, when? And for whom shall we decide that it’s the right time to start healing our own hearts and memories? Shall we do it for ourselves upon our own passing? It doesn’t take a lot to see the conundrum in that idea.
Like so many ugly and hurtful things in this world, whether it be child molestation actual or alleged, the downing of planes, buildings or a single home, we as humans have come to a place where we react with anger and fury, notions of justice only thinly veiled vengeance. We do know in our hearts how to forgive. How to soften our hearts. Many figures and teachers from different faiths have not taught us, but reminded us of the divinity of forgiveness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called for truth and reconciliation after Apartheid; Martin Luther King, Gandhi, believed in forgiveness. Even the often unfairly demonized Malcolm X found softness in his heart toward all after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca. And no differently, each of these figures suffered their own significant human frailties.
Michael through his art called for healing, and cried not simply for himself, but for us all and this planet we live upon. Can we take a moment of peace if not to find softness in our hearts for him, but for ourselves who lost a unique and consummate entertainer?
I hope we can.
What The Mars Volta have achieved as a band in roughly seven years, five studio albums, one live recording and an EP has been to create a body of work of significant magnitude. To do so before either Omar Rodríguez-López or front man Cedric Bixler-Zavala thirty-fifth year of age, is nothing short of remarkable, especially in an era of manufactured musicianship and a world of ill-informed listenership. In all seriousness, how much of contemporary and popular music has a point of reference going farther back than The Beatles?
June 23rd, 2009 marks the U.S. release of The Mars Volta’s fifth studio release, Octahedron, an album which lead guitarist and album producer, Omar Rodríguez-López has called the band’s “acoustic album”. Every serious TMV fan should know to take these words with a certain grain of salt, as just about everything the band does is not what it seems.
The sense that this is the band’s most accessible album since the band’s definitive album Frances the Mute, is not without merit. Many fans over the years have been divided over the artistic success of Amputechture as an album. While a significant amount of their fans stand by the album as one of their masterworks, few will argue that appreciation of its Zappa-esque and heavily Jazz-inspired riffs take some work to appreciate. Its follow-up, 2008’s The Bedlam in Goliath is likely to stir even more controversy amongst listeners. Hardcore fans alike will call it everything from garbage to genius. In my opinion, Bedlam lacks a cohesion certainly over Frances, but even the at times disparate Amputechture. Bedlam is much more academic in nature. It’s the album you put on realizing that you should, and upon re-listening you rediscover why you should listen to it.
Octahedron comes in at an economical 50 minutes, and one might complain it does so in short bursts averaging in five minute lengths. It does so however, with an artistic cohesion much more akin to the all-around brilliant Frances. While songs like “With Twilight as My Guide” and “Copernicus” are amongst the album’s most mellow, songs such as “Halo of Nembutals” bridge the divide nicely to create an overall engaging song-scape.
Perhaps more than any other band, The Mars Volta are a band that records different albums certainly when they are in the studio, but as anyone who is familiar with their live repertoire, performances of even their most signature of songs can vary greatly. From album to album, lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala uses his voice differently, often having more in common with a shredding guitar or percussion instrument (very much to his credit), than a finely honed vocal instrument. Octohedron presents in Cedric’s voice, an instrument of greater precision and for some, accessibility. Just as much as this album deserves a certain level of attention to really pick up on it’s finest moments, it’s also most likely to be the album easiest to play in the background.
Lead guitarist and once again producer, Omar Rodríguez-López offers up a rock solid foundation of guitar work and dense production value. The production value, and to a certain extent the contemporary taste for digital clarity and compression, leaves me wishing that I could hear an analog master. If I had any complaint about the sound of this album, it’s a lack of warmth and space even within the most wide open sounding of pieces. Despite that, there continues to be a level of melodiousness that can be found in the most chaotic cuts such as Cotopaxi and Teflon.
Octahedron, nor TMV are not likely to start show up in the easy listening bin, nor have they started to put out offerings which diverge from their sound, or worse yet, feel like they are selling out. And while continuing to chart their own territory, listeners will find sounds and themes reminiscent of bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or even the guitar work of Mike Oldfield.
The music and work of The Mars Volta will likely continue to challenge it’s most ardent fans, or confound it’s biggest critics, but the most serious of music listeners will continue to find a level of musicianship well above average, leaning into flashes of genius. The Mars Volta to their credit, still have better albums in them. What is often most promising about them as musicians and performers is that they don’t simply go in to the studio to record the next album, but instead to focus on the next piece of a larger body of work. It’s for that reason that I defy deriding any of their work even when it has been less satisfying; their least successful work is still better than the average mainstream release today. There are albums which are more successful than others, some more accessible to an audience unaccustomed to listening beyond a superficial level. And as polarizing as their work and sound can be, they continue to produce work that matters.
Octahedron feels to me like work on the verge of something bigger, and even more epic. Not just the next Frances the Mute, but an even more challenging and thrilling level of sound and performance. This is what defines them as one of the few truly progressive bands to be called “Progressive Rock”.
The lion’s share of bands carrying the “Prog” label continue to be of a singular sound which has not progressed one iota in thirty years. Staid, safe and exceedingly similar. This is largely due to TMV playing well-outside the genre, and venturing well into the realms of progressive forms of Jazz, Psychedelic Rock and Latin music. They expand the genre by shattering it. The day that they come to record an album that fans will expect, is the day that their music becomes safe and the thought of “selling out” becomes a possibility.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala has said in reference to the album: “We know how people can be so linear in their way of thinking, so when they hear the new album, they’re going to say, ‘This is not an acoustic album! There’s electricity throughout it!’ But it’s our version. That’s what our band does — celebrate mutations. It’s our version of what we consider an acoustic album’.” It’s those mutations of genre expectations, sounds and performance landscape that listeners to continue to expect. I don’t pretend to imagine that all fans of The Mars Volta will like Octahedron, but perhaps it will introduce new listeners to the band. And as long as the band continues to push themselves and their listeners, they will have ardent fans, and the fans will have something to look forward to.