September 2011

Writing About Music Is Like Dancing About Architecture, As The Saying Goes

September 16, 2011 10:58

I love every part of the Haydn. It is a quartet that I can hear in any mood and can play in any mood. The headlong happiness of the allegro, the lovely adagio where my small figures are like a counter-lyric to Piers’s song; the contrasting minuet and trio, each a mini-cosmos, yet each contriving to sound unfinished; and the melodious, ungrandiose, various fugue – everything delights me. But the part I like best is where I do not play at all. The trio really is a trio. Piers, Helen and Billy slide and stop away on their lowest strings, while I rest – intensely, intently. My Tononi is stilled. My bow lies across my lap. My eyes close. I am here and not here. A waking nap? A flight to the end of the galaxy and perhaps a couple of billion light-years beyond? A vacation, however short, from the presence of my too-present colleagues? Soberly, deeply, the melody grinds away, and now the minuet begins again. But I should be playing this, I think anxiously. It is the minuet. I should have rejoined the others, I should be playing again. And, oddly enough, I can hear myself playing. And yes, the fiddle is under my chin, and the bow is in my hand, and I am.

That passage is from Vikram Seth’s 1999 novel An Equal Music, which delves into the lives of a circle of professional classical musicians. There are a lot of striking elements in the book, but for me the highlight is how beautifully Seth describes his characters' performances.

I’m currently writing a short story about a string-playing protagonist. I ended up plotting it in such a way that it’s more about his debilitating obsession with his career and his fractured relationships with other people than it is about his actually playing any music. An important audition takes place smack-dab in the middle of it that I’m not even going to attempt to dramatize. I could sit here and come up with some convoluted reason why this is so (I made a deliberate artistic decision to focus on his life around his performances, because um, the lack of actual performances symbolizes the lack of fulfillment his career and, um, the music world in general has brought him – yes! yes, that’s it exactly), but to be honest, I think subconsciously I’ve shied away from describing performance simply because doing so is just so – damned – difficult.

If the Detritus Review is any indicator, plenty of other writers struggle mightily, too. The Detritus is a blog clogged full of the most egregiously awful classical music reviews contemporary journalism has to offer, where a team of snarky musical know-it-alls deconstruct the work of hapless writers on deadline. I always feel conflicted reading their entries. Many times I find myself choking with derisive laughter at nonsensical reviews which all too often sound like the result of some tequila-fueled musical Mad Libs game gone horribly, horribly wrong…but there’s always a nagging voice in the back of my head – if you had a deadline and a word count and an unsympathetic editor, could you do much better?


Why is music so difficult to write about with beauty, grace, and clarity? Is it really any more difficult to write about than other subjects? (It certainly seems so to me, but maybe that’s because I care more for music than I do for anything else, and have a lower tolerance for bad or lazy writing about it.) How can people who want to write better about music? I suppose the standard rules of good writing apply (clever word choice, correct sentence structure and grammar, specific evocative imagery, etc., etc., etc.), but I think there other elements at play, as well. Actually, when you actually stop to think about it, it’s overwhelming how many well-honed skills a truly great music writer has to be able to bring to the table…many of them only peripherally related to writing ability. In an ideal world, he or she should have a long experience of concert-going – a familiarity with the repertoire – a knowledge of the history and the performance conventions of the repertoire – a familiarity with artists – some idea of the obsessive, often perfectionistic psychology of the people onstage – a quick observational talent – a truly intense focus – an ability to convert vague impressions to concrete ideas – maybe even experience actually performing the pieces in question him or herself… I could go on, but will spare you.

What, in your opinion, makes or breaks music writing, in either fiction or non-fiction? Who are the greatest practitioners of the art out there? And maybe most importantly: what can we do to become better writers and communicators away from our instruments?

Just some idle thoughts I had while procrastinating about finishing up that story…

(This entry was reposted from my blog Song of the Lark.)

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