Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing About Music

I've written before about the blind spots that writers often have about music—specifically, poets who have an apparent inability to understand how music is its own force, not merely a support for song lyrics. I have also considered before about how audio performance, for example radiobroadcast, might be a genuine enhancement for much contemporary poetry; but I suspect that the poets' blind spots will keep this from happening, too, as most poets of my acquaintance seem to believe that print presentation trumps any other form, and should. No wonder there are floating accusations of hermeticism and irrelevance circling much poetry criticism nowadays.

Geeta Dayal has written a book about Brian Eno and the making of his 1975 album Another Green World, both a history of an influential album that lies at the root of much contemporary electronic pop music, but also an examination of the creative process. (The book is published by Continuum, and can be found here.) An interesting aspect of this book about a classic album is that both of the creators used the Oblique Strategies deck of cards (developed by Eno and Peter Schmidt), which is designed to help an artist break through blocks, mental ruts, and other impediments. Eno used the Obllique Strategies cards throughout the making of his album; and Dayal used the cards to help her write her book about the album. (I love the Oblique Strategies, and have been known to use them myself from time to time.)

Author Geeta Dayal was recently interviewed on PRI's weekly arts & humanities program To the Best of Our Knowledge. (Their podcast, which I highly recommend, can be found here.) Listening to this interview was a real treat for me, because it pointed out many ways in which the arts can interface, and that creativity is a way of life, not a hobby. (Seriously, this entire program is well worth a listen. You can listen or download this program here.)

Dayal said some interesting things during this interview, but one particular set of comments really struck home with me, and clarified my thinking about writers' blind spots about the other arts, and why so many writers so often fail at conveying the experience of being involved with music, of being immersed in the process of musical creation and performance. (Rock criticism, generally speaking, is even more full of clichéd rhetoric than poetry criticism.)

In Another Green World, only 5 out of 14 songs use lyrics, sung and/or spoken. Eno has been quoted as saying that the most important thing for him was to use the texture of the voice as a musical instrument; that the words don't mean that much to him, that the lyrics aren't even that important. The song's lyrics do add up to sentences, rather than random words, and they do mean something in themselves; but they're oblique, not foregrounded the way lyrics are in most songwriting: most of which tends to be about the music supporting or enhancing the meaning of the words. This is completely the opposite of that.

Dayal comments during the interview:

[Eno] was tired of this kind of hierarchy, of the voice being in the front. You have the singer in the front of the stage, the drummer in the back, you have a guitar player and a bass player. He wasn't into that any more. What he wanted was to sort of compress everything together, have everything be on the same level, have these sorts of layers.

I definitely think that one of the reasons why Eno is a particularly challenging person for rock critics to write about is simply because rock criticism really grew out of literary criticism, and poetry, in a lot of ways. There's a reason why so many people write about Bob Dylan: Dylan is somebody where you can really analyze the lyrics, and that's a comfortable place for a lot of writers to be.

Interviewer: And you don't have to write about the music.

Dayal: Writers, being writers, love talking about words. It makes sense. And so they love people like Bob Dylan, and you see Greil Marcus has written book after book after book about Bob Dylan! There's a reason why these really gifted writers go back to people like Dylan, or the Stones, or the Beatles, or whatever. When you have somebody who's like Brian Eno, who is saying "I really don't think the vocals are that important, I really don't think I'm that interested in the lyrics," it really stumps them. [laughter] Because they're like, then what do we write about? How are we going to say anything about this?

Now, for me, I spent many years just writing about pure electronic music. And so, I love writing about the sonics, about the sounds themselves. I got it, I understood. I actually prefer writing about someone like Eno, rather than breaking down and analyzing symbolism and meaning in rock lyrics.

I completely agree with this. I think Dayal has put her finger on a fundamental weakness of much music criticism, particularly about pop music genres. Writers, being writers, love talking about words. Fair enough, because that's both the drink and the essence of what writers do. But also, it creates this blind spot I'm talking about, in which writers are often stumped when trying to write about something that is not, or cannot be, contained in words; or is not made up of words.

Music criticism about symphonic literature is often metaphorical, even poetic, if you go back and read the classical music criticism of past centuries; yet the best of it discusses what the music evokes in the listener, and is more than mere descriptions or detailed historical notes. A lot of good rock criticism (Greil Marcus included) is about the history of the music itself: its roots, its origins, its lineage and results; it makes you understand the context of what you're listening to, as good criticism ought to do, deepening your experience of the art by surrounding your experience with complementary knowledge. But the best rock criticism (one thinks of Lester Bangs at times like this) re-creates the experience and power of the music in the reader—the way a poem needs to re-create the experience in the reader. In other ways, it's somatic, not merely cerebral: gutsy, not just intellectual.

There have been some great poems written about hearing the blues, to be sure—but that's an artist writing about art, not a critic writing about art.

My own background echoes Dayal's, as a writer: science-trained, involved with experimental music, non-verbal music, and avant-garde music, in whatever genre, including rock, from the beginning. I feel like I've finally encountered a rock critic who gets it, who understands my own viewpoint, because she seems to share it. (David Toop being one of the few others who gets it, and he himself being an avant-garde composer who's worked with Eno et al.) Most rock criticism, in my opinion and experience, is definitely word-fixated, I think largely for the reasons Dayal points out.

So writers tend to focus on the song lyrics—on the words—and don't have as much to say about the music. (I can analyze the music pretty readily—but I went to music school, where they shoved a lot more music theory down our throats than you could ever imagine, or desire to know about. Trust me on that one.) This leads directly to that blind spot writers have: in which they forget that songwriting is not writing, it is not a poetic form, it consists rather of the synergy of words-and-music together. Neither one complete without the other. The best songwriters raise the synergistic combination that is the song to much higher levels than either the song's melody or the song's words could attain alone, on their own. It's the synergy that matters. And that's why calling even great songwriters Poets, and building cults around their song lyrics as Poems, is absurd. You cannot analyze the words of a song, and ignore the music, and successfully comprehend the finished effect. They cannot be broken apart.

This goes a long way towards explaining the Cult of Bob Dylan, and the Cult of Leonard Cohen, in which both of these actually very good singer-songwriters are deifed into Poets—which they are not. Again and again it must be said, you can't really analyze a song lyric, purely as poetry, apart from the context of the music, which is the other part of the song. This is why many song lyrics, when presented as poems on the printed page, simply fall flat—or seem quaint and antiquated, with endless metrical end-rhymes. Those things pass by in the context of being sung, in the context of the music, but as words alone they can be trite. (Of course, saying any of this around members of the Cult of Dylan is unpopular, but it is nonetheless true. What Dayal says about those who write about Dylan is exactly correct.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My problem with music and art is that they are their own things. They are already a reduction of what was in their creators’ heads and so to “translate” them into words means that what we have is one more step removed from the original concept. I’ve had in mind to do a blog about music, as opposed to lyrics, for a long time but I could never find the words. What I think I’ll end up doing is a playlist and leave you all to it.

I’ve never felt a very strong urge to deconstruct music. When I was writing it, yes, of course, but now I’m resigned to being a listener and I’m happy for the composers to do all the hard work. I get tired of composers like Stockhausen whose techniques are more interesting than their music. That Helicopter Quartet was just plain awful but I like the idea of a string quartet flying around if only it sounded nice. If only it did something bar irritate me. (To be fair I’ve only listened to five minutes of it off the TV.)

Eno I’ve heard talk before and he’s interesting to listen to. I have a fair bit of his stuff and play it quite often – I’m especially fond of Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks - but I’ve no real interest any more in dissecting it. It resonates with me. I need music to do that. It doesn’t have to be the happy string it makes hum or the sad one but it has to touch one of them. I remember listening to Stockhausen’s Kontakte thirty-odd years ago and thinking: What am I supposed to take away from this?

10:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I guess my thought, which parallels yours, is that music is its own thing, writing is its own thing, and songwriting is its own thing. It's always been a temptation to try to cross those boundaries between those arts by ignoring their differences.

When I was in college, I was very interested in Sidney Lanier, a poet and musician—he was principal flutist with the Baltimore Symphony for many years—who wrote an entire book on Poetry and Music. Some of it reads as quaint now, as this was well before Wagner and Debussy, to name only two composers who turned the assumptions around 19th C. music on its head. Lanier had some very specific ideas that poetry and music were One Art—probably for him they were. But I don't think his theory travels well—particularly in the face of the avant-garde music you've mentioned.

Stockhausen it seems to me was often more about the conception than the execution. Some of his ideas are fascinating, but they don't result in music one wants to listen to all night long. But then, Stockhausen is an extreme example, too. Morton Feldman's music, also full of interesting ideas, is a lot easier to listen to all night long; to name just one counter-example to the Stockhausen example.

You mentioned deconstructing music, which I think is where a lot of music reviewers flail around, especially if they don't have words to latch onto as an anchor for their analysis—that's the essence of what I think Geeta Dayal was saying. I'd be more interested in a music journalism that doesn't deconstruct or analyze music so much as it "interprets" it in words, as a way of connecting the reader, the reviewer, and the subject matter.

A lot of Serious Critics are really writing about themselves, not about their subjects, as you know—that's as true in music criticism as in literary criticism, I think.

In the cases of music criticism that is well-written, insightful, and interpretative, the best result is that it makes you want to go listen to the music being written about—in some cases, as if for the first time, even if you're already familiar with it. It helps one hear new things in a possible already-familiar piece.

That's the reason I'm interested in reading Terry Teachout's new biography of Louis Armstrong; I've never been that big a fan of Armstrong—respect isn't always the same thing as fandom—and I'm curious if Teachout will give me a way to hear Armstrong's recorded music with new ears.

10:36 AM  

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