I was going to open this with the old “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” quote, and did a search to find the attribution for it; only to discover that nobody seems to be quite sure. There is a page where the possibilities are detailed, though.
I’ve always liked to mentally twist the meaning of that quote, and imagine people dancing around a piece of architecture. But I mention it now because I’m beginning to think it might hold a lot of truth, for me at least.
I’ve spent a lot of my time reading about music, though: all through the punk years I bought Sounds; then after a hiatus while at university I read the NME in the late eighties and all through the nineties. Even today, I read Uncut from time to time (growing up means switching from a weekly to a monthly schedule: discuss). As well as that, I’ve read a number of musical biographies: The Beatles, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Stones…
So reading about music is commonplace to me. Why, then, should I suddenly begin to doubt the worth of writing about it?
Well, it’s this here Open University course I’m three weeks into. A103, “An Introduction to the Humanities” covers an unfeasibly broad set of subjects, of course. The idea is to give us a grounding in various disciplines, and the tools with which to learn to study them.
So far we’ve looked at art history, literature (in the form of the sonnet) and this week, music.
Trouble is, while I found it fairly easy to write about art, and even easier to write about literature (that’s why I signed up in the first place, as I may not have made entirely clear back there), writing about music is another matter entirely, I’m discovering.
It’s not that I don’t have the vocabulary: as well as what I know from general knowledge, and what I’ve learned in more years than I care to remember bashing a guitar, I’ve picked up enough in the last week or so to be able to discuss timbre and tempo and texture with the best of them (the best of them in my tutor group, anyway). No, the problem is that I don’t find music evokes in me the images that other say it does. Yeah, I can tell when a piece is dramatic or sad, for example. But when in tonight’s tutorial they played a piece that everyone who commented said made them think of water in some form (except for the woman from Israel who said it reminded her of her national anthem), I just thought it was a kind of not-very-interesting swooshy piece. It was, in fact, supposed to represent a river — it was a “tone poem“, apparently.
Maybe I’m unimaginative; but the problem for me, really, is the lack of words. It’s always been words that have drawn me to songs — in combination with the music, of course: the best words in the world could be ruined by a crappy tune or insipid performance.
But not completely ruined.
I have concluded that most of the reading about music I listed above was actually rather about musicians. Which is fair enough, but doesn’t help much.
None of this is to say that I haven’t enjoyed the music section so far; just that it’s more challenging than the rest.
Next week: philosophy. In the meantime I’m off to compare and contrast St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge by means of interpretive dance.