We are so excited to welcome Mount Valor (aka Kyle Novy) back to the Summer Sounds concert series this year for a special acoustic solo show on July 21. This multifaceted northern Michigan artist recently completed an eponymous project in which he released a new (free to download) song every week for an entire year.
We asked the Interlochen Arts Academy instructor if he could share a few thoughts on “why” songwriting, music, or arts in general is important to him—when it seems increasingly devalued in our culture.Purchase Mount Valor Tickets Here
Mere Child’s Play
Let’s just get this out of the way: I pretty much make music all the time. When I’m not teaching songwriting to high-schoolers, I’m working on projects through my online production company. And when I have some more room to squeeze in there, I’m making no short amount of music on my own. While it might seem a little overboard to some (or just insane), for me it’s normal. Like walking or breathing or driving to work everyday, it’s just part of daily life. Sometimes people wonder why I have such a need to sit down at the piano, or labor for hours over a lyrical idea – why is it that important? And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. But I’ll start with this idea: music helps us make sense of life.
Music helps us make sense of life.
Songwriters are constantly trying to find unique ways of “framing perspectives,” capturing specific elements of situations and feelings and magically wrapping all of it up in a four-minute experience that stays with us for a lifetime. Songs are kind of like nature in that regard—we’re given a space to wander and get lost. We get transported to the joy of the beach, the questions in a divorce, the electricity of dancing and the loneliness of relationship that fell apart.
And that’s precisely why we need the music: we feel alive. And not just music, but all of the arts; we come to life with these strange but haunting expressions of our humanity, and we’re touched in a way that separates us from other creatures. To put another way, a world without singing and dancing and painting is a world without humans. Spend even half a day with children and you’ll see precisely what humans are. We make music, put costumes on, imagine characters, and build things. We create. In some ways, artists are those who remain childlike even as adults. There’s just something intrinsically stirring in us to explore and imagine and carry on stories while creating new ones. For all the wars and injustices scarring our history, artistic works help point to our potential for creation rather destruction.
The late Rich Mullins was a songster who understood the rawness of our humanity and the beauty of creativity. He was wild kind of guy with a big heart and childlike wonder. Rich was often frustrated with how the music industry seemed to get things backwards when it comes to motives (money, fame, status) and art-making. He decided to live off a simple stipend (despite earning a lot of money as a songwriter), and eventually moved to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to teach children music. “The thing that’s cool about music is how unnecessary it is,” said Rich. “Of all things, music is the most frivolous and the most useless. You can’t eat it, you can’t drive it, you can’t live in it, you can’t wear it. But your life wouldn’t be worth much without it.”
The thing that’s cool about music is how unnecessary it is. Of all things, music is the most frivolous and the most useless. You can’t eat it, you can’t drive it, you can’t live in it, you can’t wear it. But your life wouldn’t be worth much without it. Rich Mullins
There’s so much wisdom in that quote, but a word that sticks out to me at this time of life is that little word “worth.” As a songwriter, I’m constantly looking for the little nuggets of worth in what I create. And out of these I try to form songs that carry meaning and purpose. But then I have to take it one step more and ask: “Does it give value to life? Is it adding a deeper sense of worth to my life?”Just because something is created or invented or fashioned doesn’t mean it carries a great amount of worth. I want my music to give meaning to who I am as a human and capture our story as fascinating creatures who are constantly growing and changing and searching. Rich was right – music is completely unnecessary compared to water and breathing and shelter from the conditions. Yet it’s one of the very things that gives meaning to life, one of the core things we do as humans. In other words, it doesn’t really live in the domain of our bodies—but it is of vital importance to our souls. Music very much keeps our souls going. And that’s what is beautiful about the frivolity of it all. Art is art not because it’s necessary, but because it’s the “useless” hours upon hours of childlike roaming that stumbles upon the beauty and wonder and amazement of human life.
Unfortunately I don’t think we always value the importance of the arts in our culture, and even more we don’t necessarily appreciate the profound, the interesting, the awe-inspiring side of creativity. Sometimes it seems we value showmanship, novelty, and fireworks over the music itself. So many times artists have the potential to bring us to another place, or take us on a journey to the “other” in life, but it ends up just being about them. Instead of showing us how beautiful and vibrant the world is, our focus is somehow increasingly on the “artist” and the empire that they’re building. Music becomes just a means for self-promotion and increased market share. Its incalculable worth is slowly transferred from the wealth of the universe to the poor and finite world of a self-absorbed creator.
As a teacher at a private arts school, I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by a community of artists that love what they do. Part of my job as a songwriting teacher is to help young artists grow in their ability to take us to that “other place”. Of course this leads (as it should) to the inner depths, to the vulnerable places of pain and the (sometimes even more vulnerable) dreams filled hope and ambition. “But why teach songwriting,” one could ask, “when you could teach something more important like computer programming or biomedical engineering? Put another way, “Couldn’t you do something that, you know… really matters?”
At the heart of education is opening oneself to this endless wealth of the universe; and as teachers we try to pass on to the next generation this sense of wonder and awe—that life isn’t just functional, but there’s a secret underneath it: life is beautiful as well.
And it’s here that I see the other side of the coin. It’s not an either or, it’s a both. Of course computer science and healthcare are extremely vital to a thriving world. But just as important is the celebration of life and the expression of our hearts that connect people in mysterious ways. How one person moving fingers on a cello can bring another to tears is a truly remarkable human thing. It is the simplicity of being open, as open as a child, to the weight of life. At the heart of education is opening oneself to this endless wealth of the universe; and as teachers (or parents, or mentors) we try to pass on to the next generation this sense of wonder and awe – that life isn’t just functional, but there’s a secret underneath it: life is beautiful as well. As cliché as that may sound, it’s the reason we do art. It’s why we dance around the fire; it’s why we decorate our bodies; it’s why we sing and draw and shape words into poetry. And it’s why I can’t stop splattering words onto a canvas stretched four minutes long: each day I wake up the same hungry mess I was the day before.
About the Author
Kyle Novy is a musician, songwriter, producer and audio engineer. In addition to creating his own music, he serves as an instructor in the Singer-Songwriter Program at Interlochen Arts Academy, and is also owner of online production company, My Song Alive.
Mount Valor will be performing on July 21 as part of the 2017 Summer Sounds concert series. Tickets are available here.