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Word Up

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I may have mentioned this before in this space, but I’ll say it again: I like words. I like them a lot. Some people have said and written in the past that music is impossible to describe in words. I would never say that putting important and insightful ideas about music into words is easy, but it’s far from impossible. You’ve probably heard the absurdism “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Alex Ross, whose writings about music are among the best in English today, tackles the issue in the preface to his most recent book, Listen to This.

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 dance.

I fought the urge there to give a longer quote from Ross because his writing is so engaging it can be hard to find a point at which to cut him off. Seriously, you need to get this guy’s writings.


"Magnetic Poetry" by Natalie Roberts ({a href="" target="_blank"}surrealmuse{/a} on Flickr)

Anyway, given that writing about the arts is a “curious and dubious science,” I’m prepared to accept many ways of doing things. But please, can we just rein things in a little bit? Don’t use words unless they mean the thing that you mean. I heard a very bright person recently describe a part of a work as being “asynchronous” (not at the same time), when he really meant that it was “asymmetrical” (not the same on both sides). Obviously, this was likely a simple mistake for this guy, and I still have a great deal of intellectual respect for him.

However, composers need to figure out how to talk about their music. I’m as guilty as anyone. In my last post, which I’m embarassed to say was two months ago, I linked to a Michigan Radio story that included an interview of me. When I sat down with the reporter (Jennifer Guerra), I struggled to describe my music to her. In the story, she quipped that my “elevator pitch” could use a bit of work. She was right.

A friend of mine recently described a piece of his on Twitter as being “abstract.” First of all, the artificially-imposed brevity of Twitter can be both a rhetorical blessing and descriptive curse. I understand that it’s not easy to describe a new piece, even without the 140-character restriction. However what could my friend possibly have meant by “abstract”? Was he just trying to tell non-musicians that it’s scary-angsty-dissonant music? If so, is that really the thing you want to squeeze into your 140 characters? Let us assume, for now, that my friend was trying to make his music sound appealing rather than threatening (an assertion which it would be fair to doubt). To me, especially in art, “abstract” means the opposite of “concrete” or “representational.” In this sense, isn’t most music abstract? Surely, Bach was not writing the Goldberg variations to represent sounds heard in nature, right? Of course there is quite an expansive continuum between abstract and representational, but I think most music, especially music that doesn’t use any sampled “found sounds,” falls much closer to the abstract end.

We have to remember that as composers, when we write about our music, our audience has likely never heard it and in some cases never will. When words are all we’ve got (and I think they’re pretty damn good), we have to choose them more carefully. Composers and musicians, how do you describe your music? Is it as big a struggle for you as it seems to me?