Musician Chilly Gonzales (born Jason Charles Beck) hates bananas. I’m not that fond of bananas myself. It’s that sticky, doughy texture. Our mutual dislike of bananas is a trivial idiosyncrasy, the same as with probably millions of people. However, there are other important things about which I feel the same way as he does, which was a pleasant, but unexpected, discovery. This world-famous, award-winning, masterful composer and pianist, this enthralling performer, made me feel that I was on the same page (pardon the pun) as him, while I was reading his book, ENYA – A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures. (Not ungodly, unguilty.)
He spoke to me: me, an amateur, fiddling around on Logic Pro, making things that could, if one were kind, be called “songs”. Now that takes superior writing skill and expertise. The blurb on the back of the book describes it as “crisp, erudite prose”. It certainly is.
How did this happen? Firstly: I actually understood right away what he means. Secondly, I could immediately apply the arguments to the composition I was working on. Thirdly: It made me go and listen to Enya’s music. I thought I knew her music, and Gonzales’ music and basic approach to composing, but reading the book led me to many new angles and ideas.
Not into music, not interested?
So, to those of you who do not write or perform music or lyrics, I say do not ignore this half-size paperback of a mere 61 pages of text, because Gonzales confronts the reader with questions and possible answers about core aspects of the creative process, whether it is creating fiction, poetry, lyrics or music. These include:
- Silence and empty space – What does it mean and how do you use it?
- Percussion, as an accepted and established element – What does it do and can you do without it?
- Taste – Does it matter if you like what other people consider common, clichéd or tacky?
- Words – Can you express what you want with fewer words, or no words, or “yaourt” (French term for word-like syllables used as vocals in music)?
- Genres and categories – Do you fit in, do you want to fit in, does it matter if you don’t fit in?
- To perform or not perform – To publish or not publish?
- Reasons for creating music – What’s yours?
It is a treatise, in the sense that it is a written work which deals formally and systematically with a subject, investigating and exposing the principles of that subject. In this case, the subject is the musician, Enya, and what makes her music something which is not a guilty pleasure. A guilty pleasure means something that you like but which people tell you not to like because they consider it to be in poor taste, generic or without artistic merit. So it is about what artistic merit, or artistic value, is. And who says it is. And who says that Enya’s music is a guilty pleasure.
So – Enya: “Sail away, sail away, sail away…”
Remember that? Of course you do. Right now you can probably hear it in your head. It’s actually called Orinoco Flow, from her second studio album, Watermark (1988).
It has features which even today are atypical, uncommon, and unusual: instead of a beat, she used strings, played pizzicato-style. Instead of a piano, she used a very early synthesizer, the ROLAND D-50, which sounded “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” – or a string ensemble, to quote Douglas Adams – in a kind of “alternate sonic reality”. Instead of lyrics, she sang words which were perfectly in sync with the rhythm and the melody, but don’t make much sense – so much so that the lyrics of Orinoco Flow have sparked numerous mondegreens:
From the North to the South, Ebudæ into Khartoum
From the deep sea of Clouds to the island of the moon
Carry me on the waves to the lands I've never been
Carry me on the waves to the lands I've never seen
We can sail, we can sail with the Orinoco Flow
We can sail, we can sail
(Sail away, sail away, sail away)
We can steer, we can near
With Rob Dickins at the wheel
We can sigh, say goodbye Ross and his dependencies
We can sail, we can sail
(Sail away, sail away, sail away)
(Who is “Rob Dickins” and “Ross”? Rob Dickins was the executive producer of Watermark, the album on which the song appears, and Ross Cullum was the co-producer.)
The lyrics to Orinoco Flow come close to being yaourt. Sometimes in her songs she sang yaourt words, or she didn’t sing at all. The point is that Enya realized that there are many more ways to skin a cat – or to communicate – than by writing lyrics. Music notation is a language. English is a language. So is American Sign. So is Mathematics. They are all systems to communicate with. So what you use depends on what and how you want to communicate.
It’s yaourt to my ears
Can you throw away a convention of a language (say, punctuation) and literature (for instance, the plot), and still communicate successfully with your reader or listener? Can you do without lyrics in a song, if it is still to be a song?
So, if you mean what you are doing (rather than doing it by accident), rejecting convention can have an unexpected, effective result. Doing so will work if, in addition to leaving it out, you use an alternative technique or system which the reader or listener can understand.
For example, e e cummings used little punctuation in his poetry, and what he did use, he used in an unconventional way. Can you still read and connect with his poems? Yes, because he structured them like thought patterns and like singing – with run-ons, contractions, repetitions and simple, direct ideas. He replaced standard punctuation with rhythm and perfect, even over-used, rhymes.
Enya did not use beats (electronic percussion and drum tracks) for the rhythm in her music. In Orinoco Flow in particular, she replaced that with the “…grand gestures of symphonic percussion: majestic timpani and whooshing cymbals. Subtle gestures that the ear hardly notices.” (p. 43) But do listeners understand – can they feel the flow of the river through her use of synths, basses, timpani and cymbals? Absolutely.
All this is what Gonzales explains in his treatise. I wish I can just quote the whole thing here. I have underlined and highlighted text on just about every page of my worn-out copy.
What do you truly desire?
It made me understand something about myself: When you (speaking generally, myself included) are creating something, out of your own mind into something real, a novel, a song, a poem, you need to stay true to yourself. Only misery can come from imitating someone else’s style, copying a popular style, twisting yourself into knots to conform to all the conventions of a genre, writing to impress people, and, especially, making something that fits the received definition of art.
If you do, you could make a lot of money. You could have instant success. You could be on best-seller lists. But those criteria are goalposts that are forever moving, and chances are that what you put out into the world today, may not be acceptable or popular tomorrow. The taste of the “general public” is a fickle thing, influenced by who-knows-which faceless profiteers.
You create things in order to connect with people. You may not say that this is what you truly desire. But, deep down, it applies to even the most introverted person.
Ask yourself: what is it you truly desire to do? Consider what inspires you and what you are going to do with what you have created.
What you create can ultimately only be complete once someone else has seen, heard, or experienced it. (This is exactly the point that Jerry Seinfeld makes about his comedy – connection with the audience is the ultimate objective.)
Those other people are part of the masses out there, all over the world, thanks to the Internet. If you connect, you could get love, hate, or no reaction. If you do not connect, then you get into a philosophical tangle, like in that old adage; if a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Or like Schrödinger’s Cat – potentially it is dead and alive in the box at the same time, so does it exist or not?
Ergo: Keep what you do to yourself: the job’s only half done. Send it out into the world: you could be damned, but the job’s done. As Seth Godin puts it when talking about creating things: “Possibility comes with agency, and agency comes with risk.” I should print out that phrase poster-size and put it on my wall.
Gonzales writes that his particular styles and techniques, such as his refusal to use electronic elements while performing on stage, are “…a precondition, a manifesto, a border I won’t cross. It’s the constitution of my musical country against which all future laws will be measured.” (p. 39)
This is solemn undertaking because what you create contains the essence of you:
Gonzales knows what he’s talking about. The first track on his Solo Piano I album, called Gogol, made him even more famous than he already was as a rapper. But beyond his fame, he has created genuinely beautiful music which probably will outlast him. Below is an example, one of my favourites on his latest album, called Snow is Falling in Manhattan:
Warning – Chilly Gonzales earworm below
Do not blame me if you cannot get the chorus of Snow is Falling in Manhattan out of your head: “Snow, sno-ow-oh-oh-oh!” (Oh dear, now I’ve done it. It’s stuck again. It’s like it was written for me and my obsession with snow.)
It’s from his lovely album A Very Chilly Christmas, released in 2020, featuring Jarvis Cocker and Feist. Snow is Falling in Manhattan was originally composed by David Craig Berman (deceased). It is, quite simply, perfect.
I am making this my undertaking in 2022: I will stick to my creative manifesto. I will hold my songs close because they are a part of me, and I will take a deep breath and take the risk of sending them out into the world. Who knows what may happen? Thanks to Chilly Gonzales I now understand why this has been such an off-putting prospect.
Like I said, this book is full of helpful, intelligent and insightful ideas and information. I suggest you buy it and read it yourself. It’s not even expensive, and it is such a delightful unguilty pleasure.
Thanks for reading and listening. Now you can sing to yourself, “Snow, sno-ow-oh-oh-oh!”
More about Chilly Gonzales
This work, Gonzales’ first book, was originally published in German (Germany is where Canadian-born Gonzales has lived since 1999) in 2020 as Chilly Gonzales über Enya. The title can mean “Chilly Gonzales over Enya”, or “Chilly Gonzales about Enya” – it is a pun in German, as you can see by the cover design. The publisher is Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, KiWi Musikbibliothek imprint.
A very interesting documentary was made about him, called Shut Up and Play the Piano, released in 2018. I’ve seen it more than once – the title is really appropriate. He must be a quite fascinating person.
Chilly Gonzales Masterclasses on Youtube:
PS – My unguilty music pleasures
My unguilty music pleasures is a lo-o-o-ong list: Frédéric Chopin, Edvard Grieg, Johann Strauss II, ABBA (!), PSY (!!), Freddy Quinn (long dead), Fleetwood Mac (*sigh”), Electric Light Orchestra (yes, I confess – terminally uncool), etc. etc.
Ek gee nie om oor so ‘n mooi oorwurm nie. Daardie lied vat my terug na Central Park op ‘n sneeudag…