I was intrigued and very skeptical at the same time when I came across the Shakespeare project by Belgian pianist and singer Caroll Vanwelden, who published an album containing her own musical interpretation of sixteen Shakespeare sonnets in 2012. While the next album was devoted to jazz standards, the very productive artist delivered her take on another sixteen sonnets only two years later when she published a second Shakespeare album.
My skepticism was based on two assumptions: First of all, I believe that a melody should never override the natural speech rhythm of a given text. Secondly, the lyrical form of the sonnet shows a high degree of standardisation when it comes to the metre, the speech rhythm, or emphasis. In effect, I believed that anyone given the task of creating different melodies for what can basically be perceived as sixteen stanzas of one big song, was bound to fail.
Caroll Vanwelden assigned herself to this very task, not only once, but twice. She proved me wrong. There is indeed a lot of respect for Shakespeare’s natural speech rhythm in her work. At the same time, she managed to introduce an astounding level of variety and liveliness. What creative processes were at work here? This is what I set out to understand when I met Caroll to talk about intuition, teamwork, and creativity.
To get things started, I asked Caroll about the philosophy behind her work and I learned that for her, perfectionism and intuition go hand in hand:
“I always work in a very intuitive way, so when I like something, I just do it. And for me, there is a very high standard. I always wanted to be perfect. I mean, I don’t want to do something quickly, badly. I always try to finish my projects in a very fine way. That’s my philosophy.”
Inspiration sometimes just needs a spark and can be ignited by simply leafing through a book and stopping at a random page:
“I went through my book of sonnets, and when there was a word or a beginning of a text that really inspired me, it started, and there would be a melody coming. When it didn’t inspire me, well, then I didn’t search for something. Then I would just go to another song. It didn’t matter.”
Caroll’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s sonnets are complex pieces of music, but they all start with two basic elements:
“I think a good song must stand on its own with a bass line and a melody. That’s my basic principle. When you have a bass, and you have the melody, the song must sound good and be able to stand on its own. All the decoration afterwards, the arrangement and everything else, it’s something that I do in a different stage. The most important thing is the first time that the musicians in my band hear the music. Because then I have the feedback of somebody very neutral and very objective. And that’s very important.”
The band works like a team, but decisions have to be made:
“Most of the time we work in a very constructive way. We don’t really confront each other with “that’s my idea!” or “that’s better!” – no, it’s like we try to find something that makes everybody happy. And at the end I am always saying, this is okay or this is not okay, of course, because it’s my music. They know when I don’t like it, I don’t have to say it. I don’t feel like a boss and I don’t have to tell them how to play. They know their instruments better than I do.”
I learned that the creative process cannot really be fully controlled:
“I don’t have loads of hours, because I have to do so many things. But when I’m in a very creative mood, in one hour I can write loads of things. It’s like it keeps coming, coming, coming, and then it just stops. Sometimes I work 3 days in a row and I have nothing useful, and sometimes I can have lots of good ideas in only a few hours’ time, it’s always very different.”
We also talked about similarities and differences between business and art:
“One of the things that is not similar at all I think is that when I work with my group, I work with very strong individuals. Very good musicians are very, very sensitive and very fragile. If you are a musician, music is part of what you are. As a singer, your voice is your person. As an instrumentalist, if you play the double bass, it’s like your body. So if you criticise somebody about their sound or way of playing it’s very personal. And that makes it very difficult sometimes to manage musicians.”