On Writing About Music - Text of the Talk

On Thursday I gave a little talk on writing about music - a kind of expanded version of this post, really - for the Catalyst Club (usually a Brighton-based event, but now making hopefully regular appearances at Oxfork). I always agree to public speaking things with some idea in my head that I'll be smooth, hilarious and thought-provoking, and it isn't until the moment I find myself confronted with an audience that I realize I'm actually nervous, bumbling, and have a hard time remembering to take breaths in between sentences, but I think (well, hope, anyway) it went okay. Both of the other speakers - Graham Jones on the independent record shop and Jon Spira on music on film - were excellent, and the audience asked me some really good questions after, which I tried to answer as adequately as I could. I spoke from my (ongoing) experience writing this book, and I suspect the talk would have been different if I was writing in a more straightforward genre - if I was writing a biography of a band, for instance, rather than this series of essays that use them as a focal point but attempt to explore a set of much broader questions about the logistics and love of making music (or making anything, really). But even very broadly, I think the way we represent music and musicians on paper is interesting, and I tried to refute - or at least address - the old adage that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". Anyway, here's the text I based the talk on, for anyone who's curious:

On Writing About Music

I'm going to be talking to you about writing about music. Supposedly I'm qualified to do this because I'm writing a book about music. But I'll tell you what: I'm not sure I'm that well qualified to write a book about music. For one thing, I'm not a musician, and I never wanted to be a musician. I played the violin for a few years, but I played it so badly that a man once paid me not to busk. I've always enjoyed listening to music, of course, but this is really the extent of my relationship to it: as a listener. So I can only write about it - and read about it - from that perspective.

Anyway, the first time I ever felt any desire to write about music, I was 17. I was on a plane to Boston, going away to college. I was reading a copy of the New Yorker; an article about Bjork. And I got to the end of it and I thought, I don't even like Bjork that much, but I wish all music writing was like this. I want to do this. About an hour later I'd forgotten all about the article, and about my ambition. Over the next four years I discovered sex, keg stands, and Foucault, but I don't think I wrote a single word about music.

And now here I am, writing a book about music.

It turns out that the Bjork essay was written by music critic Alex Ross. A few months ago someone gave me a copy of Ross's book Listen To This, which is an anthology of some of his writing. It includes that essay on Bjork, which I've now re-read. And the funny thing about it, I think the thing that initially left such an impression on me, was that it isn't really about music at all. It's about Bjork, and Bjork is a musician, and her music is the reason the essay was - and remains - relevant, and it sort of underpins the whole thing. But the interesting parts of the essay aren't the parts where Ross describes Bjork's music. Occasionally he does try to describe the sounds. He uses phrases like "a misty mass of overlapping lines," "lurching rhythms", "craggy, medieval-sounding melodies". And these phrases sound nice, I guess. But what do they mean? I don't know - to you they may mean something. To me - as a non-musician, mind - they mean pretty much nothing. I can't hear the song in my head or understand what "craggy, medieval-sounding melodies" are meant to make me feel.

No, the reason Ross's essay is so good is that he's not just writing about music; he's writing around it. The more myopic a piece of music writing is, I think, the less resonant it becomes. When you try to transpose the notes of a song into words in a sentence, it comes out sounding a bit flat.

Which is why, to a certain extent, I can understand the notion that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". Elvis Costello said that, or maybe it was Martin Mull, or Steve Martin - there's some disagreement about this. Anyway, I think a certain kind of writing about music is probably like dancing about architecture: abstract, poetic at best, but ultimately futile. But writing about music certainly doesn't have to be that way. In fact, Alex Ross opens Listen to This by mentioning and then refuting that very quote. "Writing about music isn't especially difficult," he says - which of course is exactly what I want to read, as I'm slaving away at my laptop, struggling to write about music:

Whoever coined the epigram "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" […] was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science, its jargon ranging from the wooden ("Beethoven's Fifth begins with three Gs and an E-flat") to the purple ("Beethoven's Fifth begins with fate knocking at the door"). But it is no more dubious than any other kind of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet […] So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music?

I think one possible answer is actually in his Bjork essay. At one point, describing a conversation with the musician, he mentions that "Bjork often uses the second person to close the distance between herself and others." I think, at its best, music does this too. So maybe the perceived problem with writing about music is that it seems to reintroduce the distance closed by sound and memory: when you listen to a song, there's very little standing between you and the performer, but when you read about that song, there's at least one other person (the author) standing between you and the performer.

Which leads us to the question of perspective - the question of the author, really. There's a bit in the preface to Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful, which is a book about jazz - a book I haven't actually read, by the way, I did try, I spent a solid half a day in January trying to wade my way through. I made it to page 22, and it's been sitting optimistically on my bedside table ever since, gathering dust. I did read the preface, though, and the afterword, which I only read for the purpose of giving this talk. Anyway, the preface and the afterword are actually very good; and in the preface Dyer describes the process of writing the book. "Throughout," he says:

my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me. Naturally the distance between these two ambitions is often very great. Similarly, even when I appear to be doing so I am not describing musicians at work so much as projecting back onto the moment of the music's inception the act of my hearing it thirty years later.

I always think of music as being circumstantial. You might have two people listening to exactly the same recording of exactly the same song, at exactly the same time, feeling - hearing - different things. So it makes sense that writing about music is circumstantial, too. To the extent that listening is about an emotional rather than a rational response, it's tricky to write about: the way we affix memory to song will cloud our judgment of it and therefore our interpretation of it. For instance, every time I hear "Stars of Track and Field" by Belle and Sebastian, I have a very visceral reaction; I feel fear, I can actually smell what it was like to be on my high school track team. I used to listen to that song over and over again as a way of convincing myself that I wanted to be a runner. And it's kind of hard to capture that as a simple description of sounds. On the other hand, there's a balance to be struck: music can act as Proust's madeleine, but the author needs to remain aware that the music is still there. Otherwise you just have a story about how a 14-year-old girl didn't really want to be on the track team - which is, frankly, kind of boring.

I feel like there's a good analogy here. In December I went to a gig at the Rotunda - Gaz Coombes was playing, Little Fish were supporting. If you haven't been there, it's a little tiny round two-storey venue. And it was the first time I'd been there, and I was so taken with this idea that you can go upstairs and stand not just above the performers but behind them. It's like I could see exactly what they could see, but not in exactly the way they could see it. So I stood up there for the whole night, half paying attention to the gig and half worrying that I was about to spill my mug of mulled wine on someone's head (which, luckily, I didn't).

Anyway, I think writing about music is like that. You can be in the audience, staring the musician in the face, or you can stand above and behind him, looking out at the response - but either way, you're situated in the story too, and you have to be aware of that.

So I guess what I'm suggesting is that when we write well about music, we're not really writing about music. If all goes to plan, I'll have written a book that is kind of about music, but is more 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, the thing that compels musicians to keep going, and to reconcile that internal driving force with the harshness of the external world. What makes a band keep ticking, even after so much struggle and adversity? Why play music at all?

The book I'm writing is centered on an Oxford-based band, Little Fish. About a year or so ago, they actually asked me to write them a new biography. Band biographies are sort of tricky - so often they seem to follow the same weird pattern, you know, like, "Hailing from," - that's a big one, why do so many band biographies start with 'hailing from'?" - they're always things like, "hailing from Oxford, Little Fish sound like a cross between the Velvet Underground, the Spice Girls, and the mating call of a kakapo." Anyway, I went to interview the band for the purpose of writing this biography, but even so, it was actually really hard to write a biography that didn't sound like that, because it's hard to decide where an ongoing story should begin and end. Little Fish's story starts with a girl picking up a guitar and writing a song, but everything is still happening, they're still evolving.

And then a few months ago, Ben, who plays the Hammond for Little Fish, showed me some liner notes from an old Velvet Underground album. The liner notes included an essay by a guy called Elliott Murphy. And Murphy starts his essay by saying, "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."

And when I read this, I thought, Yes! My life would be so much simpler if I had chosen to write a book about Mozart! But instead I'd chosen to write a book centered on a band for whom change has been a central theme, particularly recently - they left their label, they lost their drummer, they've recently added two members to the line-up, right now they're on some crazy tour of China. And I thought, yeah, it's easy to write about music made by dead people - not because they're dead, but because once they're dead they can't keep changing, though our perception of them might. Trying to write a sentence about a band that's still very much alive and kicking, let alone a book about them, is a crazy idea, because just when you think you've started to understand something integral about them and who they are, something's shifted.

But then again, it's not always so easy to write about music made by dead people, either. As Alex Ross points out, "the difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe 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 maybe even the dead are not done changing, not done saying new things. There is no beginning and no end; just what we choose to extrapolate from our own encounters with a sound or a song. And I guess the answer, if there is even a question here, is that there is no answer. In a way, there's no such thing as music writing; it's all just a variation on fiction, on speculating (or presuming) what moves and motivates people.