Quinn's and Writing About Music

Writing about music is often bad writing. For some reason, I think writers don’t want to face that. Other artists know better the limitations of their craft, knowing when others can help them bring their vision to life.

My old jazz studies director had a project in Norfolk that he called “Art Pile.” He put together a band, his wife put together an ensemble of dancers, and another friend gathered visual artists. They’d perform in a warehouse, all improvising and creating their art at the same time. Art pile. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an aural interpretation of Scheherazade. Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner used folktales and mythology as inspiration for ballets, symphonic works, and opera.

Writing can be literal, but other art forms are strictly aesthetic – music can’t “describe” anything. It can evoke emotions and composers do so beautifully, skillfully, but they can’t sit down with an instrument and say with any reasonable expectation that a listener will understand: “I’m hungry right now, but I don’t want a cheeseburger.” A visual artist could perhaps make that happen, certainly in something like a comic strip. A dancer?  Probably. But could the latter two say: “The world is round, but my life is small and the ground feels flat.” Doubtful. (Though I’m not sure why they would want to.)

The singular advantage of writing is that words are the closest we come to expressing something literally. Feelings for which we don’t have words are often difficult to cope with, simply because we can’t articulate them. The world is organized in words. But like most advantages, the ubiquity of words is a two-edged sword. Words are the closest thing we have to literal representation. That’s not quite the same thing as saying that words are solid in a way that music isn’t.

Musicians don’t often think that their range of expression is limitless. Musicians envy the descriptive power of words and collaborate with lyricists, poets, and librettists – use their music to bring its expressive power into the poetry. They expand single canvasses or old folk tales into massive works, symphonic in scale. Writers don’t feel the need to consider the limits of words: anything can be bottled in description. There’s a noun for every person, place, and thing; an adjective for every nuance. But that’s not the case at all.

Reviewers use words like “icy” to describe the orchestration in a Taylor Swift track. What on earth does that even mean? If I don’t feel the same thing, does it mean anything at all? Does the reviewer feel snug in a parka on a sled with hot cocoa on the brain, or like he’s walking ill-clad through Valley Forge? What’s the difference?  Not even the great New Yorker music critic and MacArthur genius, Alex Ross, is immune. He is an exceptional writer because he says things like: “Consonance is all the sweeter in the moment before its annihilation. Dissonance is all the more frightening in contrast to what it destroys.” He is an exceptional writer in spite of saying things like:

“The Symphony is not all frozen architecture [...] And in the raptly contemplative coda, the timpani repeat a four-note pattern over forty-two bars, the quasi-minimalist ostinato creating an almost imperceptible tension with the prevailing meter of three beats to a bar – a bounce of an ethereal, incorporeal kind.”

I’m not sure what “frozen architecture” indicates in one of Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral pieces, nor am I sure that Ross is sure either. His rapid descriptions of patterns, bar lengths, and meters are merely technical, an inventory of devices he hears. But a musician will hear them as well and someone unfamiliar with them will not glean much about their nature from hearing the terms. Where words seem to fail, a mass of isms and ists fills the void like flour in soup. The appearance of reduction doesn’t substitute for simplicity. Why “quasi” as opposed to simply “minimalist?” Minimalism is certainly a thing, but with a world of verbiage at his disposal, are there not a thousand better words to describe what it entails? After such a paragraph comes one simple question: Why not just listen to the music?

Musicians draw inspiration from words, plays, poems, novels, stories, folktales, but writers distinguish themselves with the assumption – explicit or otherwise – that their words can substitute, or at least adequately stand in, for music. The extraordinary ability of words to generate clear and precise images and ideas leads writers to reduce music to description and to forget one of the most important aspects of their craft: words have music too. Words not only generate rocks, people, street corners, forests, and birds; words generate sound. The best writers not only avoid caging the music behind adjectives and clever metaphors but use their words musically; they write with rhythm and lilt, consonance and dissonance, tension and release.

I wrote in my recent review of The Other Night at Quinn’s that the author struck a balance. I also wrote briefly about having encountered a particular passage in Amiri Baraka’s Black Music. The book is a compilation of reviews that Baraka, then going by LeRoi Jones, had written for Downbeat about the vibrant and incomprehensibly creative music scene on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Critics called it Free Jazz or Modern Jazz or Post-Bop but Jones/Baraka became one of the first in a long tradition of musicians to reject the genre in favor of a name with fewer strings attached. He mostly went with “The New Thing.”

I was on the train one morning, reading the book when I encountered the following passage (quoted in passing in the Quinn’s review):

"And while some of the nonmusical hysteria has vanished from the recording, that is, after riding a subway through New York’s bowels, and that subway full of all the things any man should expect to find in something’s bowels, and then coming up stairs to the street and walking slowly, head down, through the traffic and failure that does shape this place, and entering ‘The Jazz Corner of the World,’ a temple erected in praise of what God (?), and then finally amidst all that noise and glare to hear a man destroy it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn, your ‘critical’ sense can be erased, and that experience can place you a long way off from anything ugly."

Baraka describes arriving at Birdland to see John Coltrane perform and witnessing what turned into one of the seminal live recordings of the era. The long string of phrases is one sentence, riddled with parentheticals that give it a halting polyrhythmic quality while the tension mounts. He writes the way Coltrane plays. I read his words and know what he’s saying, what he’s feeling, but I also feel the frantic onslaught of John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone when I hear its rhythm in his words. Writers, almost as a rule, do not write this way. It’s infuriating.

Music critics can write musically, they can capture aspects of the music in their words even as they avoid using empty adjectives. They just don’t. I’ve been annoyed by that for a long time and reviewing Faloon’s book gave me an outlet for a small portion of it.

For whatever that’s worth.