Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dancing About Architecture

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." is one of these quotes that never seem to die. Last week I heard it again while listening to a podcast. The quote is attributed to many people including Elvis Costello in a 1983 interview, although the origin seems to be older, perhaps much older than that. More interesting, from reading the linked piece is that someone tested dancing about architecture to see if it "was really so strange".

Whoever said it, they certainly caught the truth that written words cannot adequately capture an aural sensation. A great illustration of this is the 1998 interview* of Ray Manzarek of The Doors by Terry Gross on the Fresh Aire radio program. Manzarek describes with the help of a keyboard how the Doors worked as a group and how they wrote the song "Light My Fire". A written transcript of this interview would be unintelligible, whereas the audio interview is a revelation. Terry Gross has recorded many interviews with musicians where they play their music and they are all worth hearing.

Although I spend plenty of time listening, I have never found it useful to read about music. That is not to say that there cannot be good writing about music. In my experience the best has been in fiction, particularly the novels of Ian McEwan. In "Saturday", there are a few pages with a magical description of a rock band performing one song, followed by a meditation on how certain passages of music, and certain performances can affect us to the core.

A good part of "Amsterdam" is about the process of composing a classical symphony. While I have never composed music, I do design and write software and there are similarities to the process. I will write more about this another time. Unfortunately the novel and the symphony are cut short by the books annoying ending.

* Unfortunately, to listen to this piece, you have to have the Real Player. I have it because I have installed the BBC iPlayer to listen to old comedy shows including the Goon Show. If you do not want the Real Player, here is a another piece from NPR Music about "Light My Fire" with more palatable download requirements.

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