GETTING MORE TALE #762: When Is Your Art Really “Done”?
“Where are the starting points and where are the end points? When’s a song ‘done’? What the fuck does that mean anyway? ‘Done’? When’s a record ‘done’? Where does a record start; where does it end?” — Lars Ulrich, Some Kind of Monster
When Lars Ulrich asked the rhetorical question “When is a song ‘done’?” he wasn’t just yammering meaningless bullshit. In fact he was colourfully paraphrasing Leonardo Da Vinci, who said “A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.” Da Vinci might be the best known example today of someone who laboured over his art. Many of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa, conceal previous unseen versions beneath layers of paint. Scanning the paintings with modern technology, we have been able to discern Da Vinci’s works in progress. It is a little like peaking inside the mind of a creator as they create.
Imagine you’re finishing a painting of something completely imagined inside your head. How much time will it take to be “done”? Perhaps you have to make that sky a little more blue, or cloudy, to match your vision. You will never be able to take a photograph of your imagination, so painting something is by its very nature a compromise. You must decide when you are satisfied that you have accomplished your goal. Let’s say you added that cloud to your painting. It looks good to you. Then you take a step back and look at the whole painting. The corner where you added that cloud now looks too busy. Did you overdo it? Was the painting already “done”?
The same applies to music. Axl Rose laboured over Chinese Democracy for 15 years. There are, of course, some major differences between recording a Guns N’ Roses album and working on a painting. With the rock album, there is far more outside pressure and this can become the dominating influence. Even if outside forces end up pushing you to do something opposite from what they want, it has now effected your music. The music will not take the same shape that it would have without that outside pressure. Is that a good or bad thing? It can be either! Axl re-recorded the album at least once, and continually updated it as new members joined the band. By the time 2008 rolled around and the record was “finished”, dozens of musicians and producers and managers and writers had made some kind of impact, no matter how small.
Let’s not forget George Lucas either. The Star Wars creator fiddled with his movies continuously. Do you really think the 1997 special editions were the first Star Wars that were changed? Not even. The initial updates happened in 1980, when George re-titled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope. He fidgeted with them steadily, even beginning a fairly recent conversion to 3D until he sold the rights to Disney in 2012. (Only Phantom Menace was released in 3D, with Disney putting the project on hold in favour of the sequel trilogy.)
You can obsess over and overthink art. You can also rush it, and end up with something “unfinished” that might actually be better. This often happens out of necessity. Black Sabbath famously recorded their first album in two days. They had been playing the songs live for months and were tight as hell (pun intended) but also had a very limited amount of time in the studio. Maybe they would have loved to stay in there, experiment with different amps and guitars, get different sounds, but there was no time. And so the debut album Black Sabbath pukes overloaded guitar, and you can hear amps hum. You couldn’t have made it better if you tried. (Zakk Wylde will try and will not succeed.) Whatever they did on that album, they did out of necessity and it just happened to work.
Though my “art” is usually the written word (and occasionally video), I also love recording song introductions. This is for our annual “Sausagefest” party, and it’s something that allows me to really get creative with sound. In recent years, in addition to introducing the songs, I also create an introduction for myself. It’s sort of an audio collage of things I found funny. This started out of necessity — it was the only way I could get my comedic bits into the evening! Now it’s something I work and obsess over. And this is the question I’m currently struggling with: When is it “done”? I started recording bits for it almost a year ago, and I began piecing the whole thing together on May 11. Now we’re at the tail end of June and I’m still making changes!
Without giving it all away, I like to begin my intro with a certain, recognizable musical theme. You’d know it. This year, a certain unnamed rock band recorded their own version of that classic theme. I happened to be playing that album in the car when I realized, I had to use it! As soon as I got home, I started editing the audio track that I thought was “finished”. In a couple minutes, I removed the original theme and replaced it with the 2019 rock version. It was a few seconds longer than the original so I also had to extend the space it fit into, but that’s pretty easy to do. Now I’m even happier with the intro.
When will it be “done”? It will be “finished” when time is up and I’m forced to turn it in. Until then, I continue to listen for room to improve.
I’m no Leonardo, or a Lucas, and I’m not even a Lars Ulrich (although we have shared the same hair style on numerous occasions). I do, however, have a keen understanding that art is never done in the eyes of the creator.