I've heard of "musical prose" but...

March 1, 2010 2:00 PM

Ever written a song, or do you know of any song(s), where the lyrics are prose? As in no rhyme, no meter, no poetry - just a paragraph of prose. I'm assuming such a thing has been done by someone, just don't know that I've ever heard it...

See, there's this paragraph quote I've always liked, from poet James Merrill's memoirs, and I had the idea of attempting to make a song of it - the question being, do I tinker with the words and try to turn them into lyrics that express the same ideas (and then say "this was inspired by...") or try to do it with the actual words as they are.

So I'm curious to know what examples may be out there of any songwriters or singers who've done this?

(The closest thing that comes to my mind immediately is some of Kurt Elling's vocalese work, writing lyrics that follow the melodies of jazz solos. But even then he tends to work in rhymes.)
posted by dnash (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

How you fit human speech into music is a challenge that many have undertaken, there are lots of musicians who have done this, though you might be hard pressed to find many in the songwriting style.

+ Harry Partch invented his own scales and notation in order to accomodate human speech.
+ Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan wrote a lot of songs in a "talking blues" style which mimics human speech patterns
+ Kurt Weill wrote in a style that mimicked human speech in some sections.

And opera uses recitative to sing spoken text.

Maybe you can develop your own style.
posted by baxter_ilion at 2:25 PM on March 1, 2010

I'm not so much thinking to mimic speech, as to make the fact that it's technically prose sort of invisible.

My original thought was something sort of operatic, where different sentences or phrases might radically change in style or tone, along with the shifting descriptions in the words.

But then I kinda started just improvising on the piano and something sort of started to emerge that reminds me a little of Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" - which, though its lyrics are actual poetry and have some rhyme - it's a very loose meter, and the melody just kinda really flows and shifts with the imagery. So I'm thinking, if one had a song in a similar style, maybe the fact that the words are actually prose would sort of not matter, not be noticeable?
posted by dnash at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2010

There's a distinction to make here between the idea of "no meter" as a description of the source material vs. as a description of the vocal performance, and I guess how you're looking at that is part of what'll determine how you're approaching this (and what prior art might be helpful to you, I suppose).

You can certainly winnow out metrical opportunities from the small structures in the prose, and create something of a melodic rhythm that way, essentially inserting pauses into the passage to let the bits where you are speaking/singing fall in with some metered instrumental backing. Or you could look mostly to put down prose-as-prose, trying to fit a straight reading of the passage in with the backing in more of a sentence- or paragraph-level fashion.

I'm not directly familiar with a lot of folks who have done spoken-word or prose-based work like this, but you might take a look at some of Laurie Anderson's music as one example of a less metered, more prosodic take on vocals. Check out Langue D'Amour for example, or Big Science (which plays more with a dialogue feel than straight prose narration).
posted by cortex at 2:55 PM on March 1, 2010

Ah, I should have previewed. Heh. Timing!

I think if your goal is to disguise the free-prose nature of the source material, that's entirely doable, yeah. It takes work, and while you can certainly create a metric feel overall from the prose source you're going to be hard-pressed to create the appearance of a regular metric structure compared with intentionally constructed lyrics, but it'd definitely workable.

If you're willing to get a bit more cut-up about it and isolate, re-arrange, and repeat specific passages, you can create even a fairly regular metric structure around the thing—essentially, create a hook and use it as an anchor between portions of less metrically regular writing. Prose as verse, constructed hook as chorus.

Another way to look at this, maybe a little perverse but a great example of finding musicality in non-poetic speech: Autotune The News.
posted by cortex at 3:00 PM on March 1, 2010

Maybe I'm completely misunderstanding the question, but Tom Waits uses prose a lot.
Frank's Wild Years (the song) is maybe more of a narrative thing than you're thinking of, but then there's stuff like Step Right Up which is still spoken but plays with rhythm more, in a pitchman-mimicking sorta way.
posted by chococat at 3:15 PM on March 1, 2010

Great question.

For making prose into music without harming the actual assembly of the words, the first thing that comes to mind is Roman Catholic Mass and Jewish Cantors. While the words and phrases are actually pretty jaggedly written, when chanted they become beautiful music.

The Muslim call to prayer is a good one too. All of those things can be easily adapted to modern music styles.

Another idea is African or African influenced Latin music. I've found some that have so many layers to the woven rhythm, that you can drop in with just about anything and make it work.

Good luck, I can't wait to hear something!
posted by snsranch at 4:24 PM on March 1, 2010

A couple of things come to mind. One of my all-time favorite songs is Mark Eitzel's "Wild Sea" off his "60 Watt Silver Lining" album. Here are the lyrics. As you can see, there are plenty of rhymes, but something about his delivery and phrasing makes it seem like he's singing something other than "regular" lyrics. Several songs in his catalog have some of that feel, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are better examples I'm not thinking of right now.

The other song I thought of is R.E.M.'s "E-bow the letter," the lyrics of which is supposedly straight from a letter Michael Stipe wrote. One bizarre letter though...

Oh, one more -- possibly the most useful to you: Katell Keineg has a song called "Leonor" on her album "Jet". The lyrics are from an obituary of the Argentine surrealist Leonor Fini.
posted by edlundart at 8:55 PM on March 1, 2010

One more thought.... not sure if this will be instructive to you at all, but Norwegian writer Odd Børretzen has had a huge second career as a recording artist in collaboration with musician Lars Martin Myhre. He basically writes warmly humorous prose and reads it over Myhre's music, but he does it in a way where it beautifully interacts with the music. I have no clue if you will get that sense if you don't speak Norwegian, but give it a try...
posted by edlundart at 9:04 PM on March 1, 2010

"The Gift" by the Velvet Underground is a story about a guy who mails himself to see his out of state girlfriend set to music.

The lyrics to "Group Sex" by the Circle Jerks are from an ad in a swinger's magazine.
posted by InfidelZombie at 10:07 AM on March 2, 2010

Gil Scott Heron, beatnik poetry? maybe. more like prose to me. new LP is great.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 1:56 PM on March 2, 2010

I always think of that awesome half graduation speech/half song thing, Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen) by Baz Luhrmann.
posted by Corduroy at 3:39 PM on March 2, 2010

I feel the need to direct you toward King Missile, and man vs sun's own Hot Soda Apparatus.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 5:38 PM on March 2, 2010

Kristen Hersh also has a song on "Hips & Makers" called "the letter", which like the Michael Stipe example above is just the words form a letter read out over music.
posted by robotot at 12:50 AM on March 3, 2010

Joni Mitchell has a number of songs like this. For example, the lyrics of the verses in "A Case of You":

Just before our love got lost you said, "I am as constant as a northern star," and I said, "Constant in the darkness? Where's that at? If you want me I'll be in the bar." On the back of a carton coaster in the blue TV screen light, I drew a map of Canada (O Canada!) with your face sketched on it twice.

Oh I am a lonely painter. I live in a box of paints. I'm frightened by the devil, and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid. I remember that time that you told me, you said, "Love is touching souls." Surely you touched mine 'cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.

I met a woman. She had a mouth like yours. She knew your life. She knew your devils and your deeds, and she said, "Go to him. Stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed."
posted by ocherdraco at 9:21 AM on March 3, 2010

ocherdraco - Joni is kind of the musical model I'm following with this project at the moment, though notice that actually she does have rhymes in there... (star/bar, light/twice, deeds/bleed)...

Basically what I'm working with doesn't even have that much "structure."

Thanks again everyone for the suggestions - it's all helping me to think about this project more in different ways, which is cool. I'm afraid it'll be a while before I can post anything of it though, basically because I currently have no microphone and audio interface for it. (hopefully within a month...though even then, there's the matter of getting my vocal skills a little stronger first)...
posted by dnash at 4:29 PM on March 3, 2010

Frank Zappa's The Dangerous Kitchen (on relisten there are a few rhymes, but it's not your typical verse/chorus sort of song) and Steve Vai's So Happy come to mind.

There's also Ken Nordine, but his "Word Jazz" might be further down the poetry spectrum than you're looking for.
posted by usonian at 6:46 AM on March 7, 2010

Several songs on the Clash's Combat Rock don't much read like song lyrics. (And in fact, Joe Strummer doesn't sing much like a singer, and I mean that in a good way). But they're great poetry.

I'd throw a lot of Wire into this category too: compressed but effective verbal minimalism that, at least on the page, doesn't seem like 'lyrics' at all.
posted by Erroneous at 11:48 AM on March 10, 2010

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