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Emily Liz

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

September 16, 2011 at 5:58 PM

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.)

From Richard Watson
Posted on September 17, 2011 at 11:40 AM

 Writing about music  is especially challenging and few have the gift. GBS comes to mind at once. Pierre Boulez is a brilliant musician but Notes of an Apprenticeship is really turgid stuff in spite of its stunning analyses. Some writers can display a real love of music which is most satisfying. You cite Vikram Seth. I would also highly recommend Richard Powers "The Gold Bug Variations", one of the most rewarding books I have read in the last few decades. Best R

From Sander Marcus
Posted on September 18, 2011 at 1:26 PM

Hi, Emily:

You have indeed taken on a challenging task, which I believe is one of the most challenging for any writer. If I may make a couple of suggestions, I think the key is not necessarily to "describe" a musical performance in the sense of choosing words and images that directly reflect the auditory/emotional experience of the music itself. I think that the key may be more to choose words that "evoke" the experience, much like the language of fiction "evokes" imagery and voice. Take a look at the work of John Schultz, who created the story workshop method at Columbia College of Chicago.

Hope that helps.

From Emily Liz
Posted on September 18, 2011 at 3:26 PM

 Very thought-provoking distinction.... Thanks, Sander.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 18, 2011 at 7:07 PM

 I LOVE your description of the reviews as Mad Libs gone wrong.  But I also appreciate your sympathy for the beleaguered writers.  

When I was about 17 I read a book called Sarah by Margueritte Harmon Bro.  It was about a girl who, after the death of her father, struggled with deciding to become a painter or a pianist.  Along the way in her piano training she meets a violinist and I remember the description of that violinist's playing to have been very gracefully and movingly done.  There is also a book called Just David by Eleanor Porter that has been discussed elsewhere on this site that is about a gifted child violinist and describes how he plays for people and the effects he has on them with his music.  

Interestingly (or not), both of these books are set around the same time frame--late 19th/early 20th century--and both involve young artists trying to find their way in the world after the deaths of their beloved fathers.  Maybe it's a genuine sub-genre of writing about music, with its own tropes and biases.  In particular, I found some of the attitudes depicted in Sarah to be rather sexist (which I hope would amuse you, rather than appall you, given your interest in historical female musicians), but the writing about the music was lovely.

From Christina Wilke
Posted on September 18, 2011 at 9:05 PM

I think music, like any artform, is difficult to describe because we all have such drastically different thoughts during performance.  Sometimes I read a flowery and emotional description of a performance, by an audience member or a performer, and think, "That's absurd, nobody actually thinks like that in the moment".  Others may have a play-by-play commentator going on during a performance, someone else may find that their mind is in a place where words no longer apply.  I find the most moving depictions are ones where the honesty comes through, without any superfluous adjectives or over-the-top metaphors. 

I think I speak for many on here by saying I'd love to read the short story when you are finished with it!

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