Sophie Johnson writes:
Last night I found myself watching the BBC2 documentary about David Gilmour, who is most famous for being a guitarist and vocalist in Pink Floyd. You certainly don’t need to be a Pink Floyd fan, however, to find the programme absolutely fascinating.
What I can’t stop thinking about is Gilmour’s relationship with words and the way he expresses himself.
Most of us use words as the primary medium by which we express ourselves. We naturally don’t see it as a talent because we (nearly) all learn to speak in the first few years of our lives, even though we don’t all go on to write like Shakespeare or make speeches quite like Martin Luther King.
Gilmour, however, seems to have something of a block when it comes to talking about feelings or writing lyrics. We often joke about people expressing themselves through the medium of dance (and it does conjure up some amusing mental images) but David Gilmour genuinely does express himself through his music – whether it’s one of his many guitars or other instruments he plays, or through singing. What I found compelling about this documentary is the way in which he writes songs.
His partner, Polly Samson, is a successful novelist in her own right, and they have been together for many years. Their relationship is intriguing because she has a talent for interpreting his music and ‘extracting’ the lyrics from it.
When he is writing a melody, he will sing wordlessly, occasionally almost forming words. Samson then takes what he has recorded and goes for a walk, listening on headphones until she begins to put words to the music.
When she is happy with the lyrics, she then shares them with Gilmour and it seems that she invariably voices precisely what he is trying to say. Not only is this a fascinating and moving relationship, but it also begs the question as to why he communicates so much through wordless music.
Composers have been doing this for centuries, of course. We can listen to music without lyrics and determine whether it is happy or sad, tortured or amusing, fun or sinister, and so on and so forth.
The difference with Gilmour, however, is that he seems to yearn to put the feelings into words, but that he struggles to do this without an interpreter.
The documentary examined his childhood, and we learned that his parents sent him to boarding school at the age of 5 because his father was doing some work in America. Traumatic as this sounds, it then turns out to be worse still, because when his parents first returned to England they did not collect him and his 7 year old sister from boarding school – they left them there over Christmas and enjoyed what he described as ‘rediscovering what life had been like before they had children’.
After his father died, his mother wanted to spend more time with Gilmour and his own children, but he said that he didn’t want her close at that point in his life because she had not wanted to be close to him when he was 5 when he really needed her.
Although the documentary didn’t choose to draw any firm conclusions, it certainly left the viewer free to make the connection between Gilmour’s difficulty in expressing emotions through words and the 5-year-old boy abandoned by his mother and father, and the devastating effect that would have had on a child’s development. His partner, Samson, said that if he and she ever had an argument, it would be far better for him to respond to her words by playing the guitar than for him to try and express his emotions through words.
The lovely thing about his family is that there seems to be no sign of the cycle repeating itself with his children. They were all present in the documentary, and seem very close.
I am not an expert on how songwriting partnerships generally work, so I thought I would do a bit of research to see how unique the partnership and process between Gilmour and Samson is. Interestingly, John Lennon said, “Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed.” It certainly seems that Gilmour processes trauma through his music.
Unlike Gilmour, many songwriters write both the lyrics and melody (but not necessarily in that order) by themselves. There is an interesting article about the songwriting process as described by 25 different songwriters here: http://flavorwire.com/306045/25-great-songwriters-on-the-art-of-songwriting/18
The creative process clearly does not follow a set path: some people work alone to produce their masterpieces. Others find that a trusted partner is essential to tease out something that they cannot express in isolation. Visual art is like music: sometimes no words are needed. Other times you need words to really make it sing.