January 7, 2007

Writing About Music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"

It's unclear who originally uttered this infamous quote. It's been attributed to Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, and, most authoritatively, to Elvis Costello. (For an in-depth look at its cloudy citation history, go here.) In any case, it is a profoundly true and correct statement.

Alex Ross is the "classical" music critic for The New Yorker, and is one of the best dancers about architecture I've ever read. He can make me interested in music I thought was decidedly uninteresting, like say, Shostakovich, simply through his sharp erudition, enthusiasm, and eloquence. Plus he's not a snob and can write equally thought-provoking articles on, say, Bob Dylan.

Alex Ross, along with Peter Schjeldahl, who writes about "art," are the best reasons to subscribe to The New Yorker (besides the cartoons). They are the finest critics working in America today.



Sam said...

I've always loved that quote, but I can't agree that it's true, for the simple reason that everything we as humans express about any form of art can only be conveyed through language (well, except for animalistic reactions via rolling eyes, smell, shoulder shrugs, etc., which don't really play into criticism, do they?)--so writing, about anything, is way more valid than dancing about architecture. The only way to think about music, in a form that can be communicated to others, is through words. Unless two people are sitting together listening to music and smiling at each other. In other words, the quote seems to imply that it's a useless activity--but as a writer of music criticism, and as an enjoyer of others' (such as yours), I have to disagree. Not to say that language can cover everything about our responses to music...but whenever we think about those responses, what do we think in? Words. Even if the intitial response is a visceral one, or an unthinking one, whenever we go back and try to re-think or re-experience that response, it's in the form of words. (Rodger: the link to the citation history doesn't work--I'd always heard it was Zappa)

Rodger Coleman said...

Of course, you're right about all that. The thing is, I spent A LOT of time this weekend trying to write, and was unhappy with all of it. I then started a post about ahy writing about music is so difficult. Finally, I decided to just plug Alex Ross's blog (and New Yorker articles) because he is just so good at it. Of course, it is standards such as these that I can never live up to and fill me with self-doubt everytime I try to write anything. Obviously, I need to get over that and just write. But it's haaaaaaard.

You're right about the link. I'll try to fix it.


Rodger Coleman said...

The citation history link is fixed.