On Writing About Music

So, how about this book I'm writing?

It's Tuesday, noon, post-croissant and latté at the cafe around the corner. I'm back at my desk, reading for research or distraction or both. And a forgotten memory surfaces: 2004; I'm on the plane to Boston, 17 years old, moving out of my parents' house and into the cold arms of a strange city. I've got last week's copy of the New Yorker on my lap. I'm reading about Björk (I don't even like Björk that much, I mean, I've put some of her songs on mix CDs but mostly just to differentiate myself from my Usher-and-Britney Spears-loving peers) and I'm thinking: I wish all music writing was like this. I'm thinking: I want to do this, I want to write about music like this. I don't want to write about music the way people - fans, reviewers, Rolling Stone hacks - write about it, but I want to write about it like this.

About four hours later I'd completely forgotten about the Björk essay, about the way it felt to read something like that. To the extent that I retained any desire to be a writer over the next few years I did also retain some ambition to be able to write that comprehensively and powerfully about a subject, but I pretty much figured I was going to go to law school and move to Washington, D.C. and live out some West Wing-inspired fantasy.

And yet here we are almost eight years later, and I'm writing a book that's ostensibly about music. It turns out the Björk essay was by Alex Ross, whose book Listen To This was one of my birthday presents this weekend. "Writing about music isn't especially difficult," the book opens:

Why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music? The explanation may not lie in music but in ourselves. Since the mid-nineteenth century, audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion or spiritual politics, investing it with messages as urgent as they are vague.

My book is about music, but as much as it's about music, it's also not about music. Sounds obvious, I guess, but it's something I have to remind myself every time I sit down to work, because I keep getting stuck on this idea that I'm writing a book about music and I don't know anything about music. It's taking me a long time to get my ideas down; not because I don't have them, not because I haven't spent the last year talking about them and making notes, but because when it comes time to actually write a chapter, I find myself embarrassed by all the things I don't know. So I keep saying to myself, yes, it's about music, but it's also about ambition, disappointment, change, love, money, ordinary human interactions. What I'm looking for is not a way to accurately represent what something sounds like but a way to begin to identify a mysterious internal driving force, and to reconcile that internal driving force with the harshness of the external world.

A few days ago, Ben sent me some photographs of the liner notes from a Velvet Underground album he'd recently bought. The album includes an essay by Elliott Murphy, who writes:

I wish I was writing this a hundred years from today. Then, I'd be writing about music made by dead people. There'd be a beginning and an end.

It struck a chord, so to speak: the chapter I was working on happened to be about change, evolution, finding your voice, losing your voice, searching for a new voice. But then, just a few hours later, I read Alex Ross:

The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being. It's tricky work, presumptuous in the case of the living and speculative in the case of the dead.

So I guess the answer, if there is even a question here, is that there is no answer, or no easy answer anyway. Perhaps there is no such thing as music writing; perhaps it's all just a variation on fiction, on speculating (or presuming) what moves and motivates people.