Friday, July 18, 2008

The Man Who Met Picasso

I posted something on a discussion board at the Muses' Muse a few days ago which I thought was worth ruminating on here. It started with a question about Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." The lyric has no chorus, and barely mentions "Folsom Prison" -- and we were discussing titles and their purpose.

I'm one of those people that thinks the title is key. If you don't know the title of your song, you haven't figured out what the song *IS* yet. Songs are marvels of economy -- a few key strokes to tell your story, or paint your picture. You don't have the luxury of a short story to explain everything. The title tells you how to think about the rest of the story. And it's most interesting when the title isn't echoed in the song....

"Folsom Prison Blues" describes being in prison, and hearing a train in the distance. Most of the song talks about the train (representing freedom), and in the four verses (no chorus), only mentions Folsom Prison twice. I noted that if you called the song "Passing Train Blues" it wouldn't have half the impact -- and adding a chorus which featured the line or phrase "I've got those Folsom Prison Blues" would add nothing significant, and would actually detract from the narrative.

What I finally came to remember was a story I read more than 25 years ago, called "The Man Who Met Picasso" (I've since researched it and found out it's by Michael Swanwick, and can be found in a spec fic collection called "Gravity's Angels"). The main part of the story has Picasso telling a young artist to go stare at a particular painting, depicting a vista of orange rooftops, with one green one in the middle. The artist is to hold up his thumb so that it blocks the green roof, and start at the painting for a good half an hour, only then to take his thumb away.

When he does, the oranges become brighter and more vibrant. The presence of the green roof illuminates, by contrast, all that surrounds it.

Like the title that is not in the song, like the song with no chorus, it is often the seemingly strange element -- sometimes inexplicably there, sometimes mysteriously absent -- which is the key that lifts up the rest of the work. The green roof can raise something good to be something special.

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