Izaak Wierman is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, music educator, and songwriter from western U.S.A. I met him through FAWM and asked him about his view on limitations (natural and self-imposed) as a songwriter.
There Is Always Some Kind Of System
Music is organising sounds, and the possibilities are truly infinite. I took the classical university music path, and one of the things you learn when you are studying the history of music is that there is always some kind of system (even in free jazz). Order from the chaos.
FAWM is a great system. There will be 14 new songs in 28 days. Your time is limited. Try to post a song every two days and move on. From there I usually come up with an additional self-imposed system before February. Since 2011 I’ve come up with some fun ones, and usually rely on some music theory to help. They’re like song cycles, sets of related songs. Here’s a list of some of my past attempts:
- 7 songs, one for each of the modern modes.
- 12 songs, one in each key signature, lyrically based on each symbol of the Chinese Zodiac.
- Songs derived by randomly selecting two or three from a list of 126 fundamental rhythms.
- 12 two-chord songs using parallel Major or Minor triads at each interval (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, Tritone)
- 14 songs each focusing on a specific melodic interval (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, Tritone, P5, m6, M6, m7, M7, P8, m9, M9)
- A set of rounds
A Path Through The Wilderness Of Possibilities
I know it looks a little intimidating if you aren’t into theory, but these kinds of systems give me a purpose and a direction and a little step to take on the long path to 14 songs. Also, understand I’m not a die-hard completist. I think the Chinese Zodiac is the only one I actually completed in its entirety. I managed that by writing the last three songs during the following 50/90. I find these kinds of systems really helpful because they give me smaller decisions to make. What’s the key signature? What are the chords I will use? It’s like a game. A path through the wilderness of possibilities. Additionally I’ll take on any of the weekly challenges or forum challenges that strike my fancy, especially for lyrics. I’ve had a lot of success with story cubes, tarot cards, Loteria, and animal totems.
A Mandolin And A Phone
This year was different because I didn’t really have any self-imposed music theory ideas. I intended to leave things a little more open because I knew I would be stuck with mandolin only, and only the phone to record with. I found the acoustic one-take to be surprisingly difficult because the simultaneous singing and playing gives you many more chances to mess something up on a brand new song demo. I did get lyrics ideas from challenges on the FAWM site (Superhero themes, Loteria and Story Cube) as well as songwriting games like Explore the Core*, Morph** and Auntie-Sin***. I also wrote four traditional folk instrumentals because it’s something I can do without any instrument at all.
Every year’s a bit different. I can’t call 2016’s limitations clearly good or bad. My demo recordings definitely suffered, and I won’t likely listen to them as much as my full production demos in the future. But at the same time, the songs I wrote for 2016 are much more likely to find their way into actual live performances. Much of the music I’ve made for past FAWMs isn’t something I’m able to recreate for a live audience. But this year’s mandolin songs? … no problem. In fact, I need to get out to the local open mic here in Adelaide, and see what people think.
*In Explore the Core each person writes a completely different song based on a the same set of lyrics and using a list of possible chords.
** In the Morph challenge Songwriter 1 writes and posts a song. Songwriter 2 listens to the song before them and changes 51% to create their own song (eg lyrics, time signatures, melody, harmony, chords, style, every other word – whatever your interpretation of 51% is). Songwriter 3 listens only to song 2 and the game continues. Later, everyone listen to the whole chain to see how it morphs along the way.
***Auntie-Sin is a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis chain. Someone writes a song and the next person in the chain writes and records the “Anti” or opposite of that song, the thirds person then writes a synthesis – a new song that combines the first two songs. The fourth person writea an ‘anti-song’ of the third song which is followed by a synthesis of the anti-song and the previous song and so on.