Musician Paul Simon gave three of his four lectures for the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature reflecting on his career and growth as a songwriter Sunday and Monday. The lectures were held in Glenn Memorial Auditorium.
Simon has had a career that has spanned five decades, received 12 Grammy Awards – including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 – as well as other honors and completed philanthropic work in health care for urban areas in the United States.
The Ellmann Lectures began in 1988 as a tribute to the renowned biographer Richard Ellmann. Joseph Skibell, the Lectures director and professor of Creative Writing and English, and the selected guest members comprise the committee and choose the Ellmann lecturer.
The 2013 committee’s guest members were Jeremy Dauber, professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University; Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky; and Andy Teirstein, associate arts professor at New York University.
The committee aims to find a lecturer who “has enough gravitas as a writer” and the Ellmann series “gives the writer a chance to make a major statement,” according to Skibell.
“[Simon’s] work is completely braided into the social context of [the past] 50 years,” he said.
The Writer’s Conundrum
Simon’s first lecture explored what he refers to as the “writer’s conundrum,” the reason for which he has only written a few songs in the last three years. This conundrum became a theme of the afternoon as Simon relayed different anecdotes from a career that has lasted almost 50 years.
“An internal voice often interrupts the flow of music and words,” Simon said, explaining that a component of his conundrum is that he imposes high standards on his own songwriting.
Simon’s lecture spanned stories through many decades, including his time as a part of the chart-topping duo Simon & Garfunkel. The artist shared anecdotes about the circumstances that led to hit songs and played clips from them, including “The Sound of Silence.”
The audience responded to Simon throughout the afternoon, laughing at his anecdotes and applauding when he performed short pieces on his guitar.
“I really liked how he interweaved his lecture with his music and how he performed a little bit here and there,” College sophomore Sarah Choi said.
Many members of the audience had followed Simon’s work for years.
Spanish Professor Karen Stolley said she was a fan because of Simon’s “reflection about life but also this openness to world music.” According to her, the decision to expand the Ellmann lectures to include other genres, like music, is brilliant.
Simon recalled that the moment he first realized he wanted to be a songwriter was when he discovered that “words are really important.” He said the melodic process of songwriting is more easily explainable than the lyrical process.
“I can’t explain most of what happens lyrically,” he said.
Simon explored this conundrum further, giving the audience a demonstration of how he constructs the melody for a song on his guitar. According to him, by the time he wrote the song “Love and Hard Times,” he had developed a common songwriting process. He starts by finding a tone he can hold among a series of chords and switches keys when appropriate.
According to Simon, when he and his musical counterpart Art Garfunkel grew in popularity, achieving chart-topping success, his life changed forever. He went from performing in England for 25 pounds per day to prolifically producing successful songs.
“I was fortunately writing hits on every album,” he said, “but I had no idea which one would be a hit.”
As Simon matured as a songwriter, he said, he began exploring world music, which is a genre that fuses non-Western and Western music.
The album Graceland features music from South Africa. Graceland won Simon the Grammy Award for album of the year.
The event ended with Simon bowing to a standing ovation from the audience.
Conversation with Billy Collins
Durrow introduced former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Simon before the conversation Monday afternoon, recalling how Simon’s song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” served an important role in her life.
“My mother heard in that song a perfect blend of her Danish culture and my father’s African American spirituals,” Durrow said. “[Simon’s] international appeal heightens a deepened awareness of self.”
Collins began the conversation, sharing that both he and Simon have had many conversations in the past. Both he and Simon are stars, yet they “don’t know where they’re going,” he began.
The rest of the conversation continued the theme of “where to go,” as Collins asked about the difficulties the songwriter faced while writing the lectures.
“I took on the task because I wanted to find out how I would deal with a wall of prose,” Simon said. “I had a unique subject to speak about, and my thoughts in general are not really that well composed.”
Collins and Simon conducted the conversation with the chemistry of two old friends sharing stories at home, with the pair’s humor prevalent throughout the afternoon.
“I know darkness is your old friend,” Collins quipped as Simon asked to dim the lights on stage.
The conversation also explored the connections between poetry and songwriting, such as the emphasis on the text.
“No moment in a song is of no consequence, and it is the same with poetry,” Collins addressed the crowd. “Words enjoy each other. It’s a word party.”
Through other anecdotes of writers and writing, the two continued exploring “where to go” with the placement of rhymes.
To illustrate, Collins read the opening lines of his poetry, and Simon played opening lines on his guitar. The audience cheered with delight as Simon played.
College sophomore Anne Seckinger said she enjoyed the conversation.
“It was interesting to see their natural flow of conversation as well as hear their thoughts about the others’ art forms,” she said.
College junior Andrew Navia echoed that sentiment, describing Simon and Collins’ talk as “awesome.”
“[Simon was] one of the people I listened to growing up, and [it was] interesting to hear how his songs are made,” she said.
Audience members were able to write questions to both Collins and Simon prior to the event.
When asked if his creative perspective changed as he got older, Collins remarked that there is a “reservoir of creative content, and once it runs out there is no more.”
To close out the conversation, Collins read some of his poetry while Simon sang some of his songs.
Collins read poems including “Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska,” “Cheerios” and “After the Funeral,” a work examining what Collins calls a “conversational tic,” among others.
Simon performed the aptly named “Sound of Silence,” which left the audience enraptured until the very last note, and “Slip Slidin’ Away,” reminding the audience, “You know the nearer your destination, the more you slip sliding away.”
Simon closed the afternoon with “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” tying together the theme of “where to go,” subtly admitting to the audience: “I’m on my way, but I don’t know where I’m going.”
Art in the New Age
Simon’s third lecture, which was held Monday evening, examined art as a uniquely human experience and scrutinized modern culture.
During the lecture, titled “The Solitary Artist in a Collaborative Culture,” Simon said the idea came from a concern he had that people who work collaboratively in technology are rendering solitary artists irrelevant.
Specifically, Simon said he disapproves of the inclination of entrepreneurs to exploit music without giving credit or recognition to the artist.
“Music sells everything, it seems, except music,” he said. “Beautiful art is made everywhere on the planet and sells for nothing. How is that possible? What are we thinking?”
As someone who started his career as a member of a musical duo, Simon explored the limitations of collaborating.
“Within any meaningful collaboration there must be a meaningful solitary creator,” he commented. “A creative voice still needs a visionary who’s speaking at the helm of the ship.”
Throughout the lecture, Simon said he thinks the quality of music has declined through the years.
“Music suffered as soon as being telegenic became more important than being able to play or sing well,” he said.
The critical aspect of Simon’s lecture evoked some emotions among Emory students.
“I thought he was brilliant, but I thought he was mean-spirited,” College sophomore Ami Fields-Meyer said, adding that he felt intellectually stimulated but emotionally distraught after the lecture.
Audience members were given the chance to ask Simon questions following the lecture.
Fields-Meyer expressed disappointment at Simon’s failure to provide advice to an audience member working on his first album.
Others thought that Simon’s tone was sharp but humorous.
“He was very witty in a very reserved way, which I really appreciated,” College sophomore Annie Park said.
Simon will perform in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts for the last event of this year’s Ellmann lectures Tuesday evening.
“This is the stuff a biographer couldn’t find out, and it’s so much more important,” Skibell said.
Skibell said he has been in conversation about who the next Ellmann lecturer will be, and a list of potential speakers has already been compiled.
“I can tell you now if any of the people who are on the list were to say ‘yes’ it would be a total thrill – unexpected and amazing,” he said.
– By Rupsha Basu and Stephen Fowler
Photo by James Crissman