We’ve all been there. In the immediate aftermath of finding a new song that is just sooo good. And in the realization of the futility of our attempts to explain to others just how good it is. Seldom does our attempts work, but the impulse to try remains. It is the most human of experiences.
Yet, the question remains. How does one go about describing this feel? Or, more generally, how does one go about writing about any feel? Or music as such?
The distance between forms of expression is inherent to the question. Music is rhythm, beats, oontzes, unexpected turns of lyrical phrasing, gut wrenching moments of catharsis and the steady buildup towards apotheosis. Writing is, as you might imagine, not that. Yet the impulse remains. You heard the song, achieved the cathartic release, felt all the feels – now write ‘em!
Indeed, the introduction of 33⅓’s How to Write About Music makes mention of this, invoking a famous comparison that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Which, naturally, is bound to miss out on some of the architectural nuances. Yet, after this invocation, it also points out that it would be something of a treat to actually see a well-performed dance about architecture. The point not being to reproduce the thing written about, but to use the thing as a stepping stone for further explorations of the possible.
Looking at a title such as How to Write About Music, you might expect it to proceed in different directions. One of them being a style manual pointing out the correct ways to reference musical works, different terms describing the various parts of a song, and a general overview of terms associated with different instruments and their sounds. Another direction would be more rock&roll about it, emphasizing that it’s not about the words but about feels, and that you therefore should infuse your writing with as much soulfelt honest appreciation the strained rules of grammar can contain, and then some. The possibility space afforded by such a broad title warrants an exploration.
And an exploration of possible spaces is just what this book consists of. Rather than being a technical manual or a heartfelt “go-for-it”, it illustrates by examples. Reading it is not so much a how-to as a this too – this too is writing about music, and this too is a valid expression about it. When perusing the various examples of writings on music contained within, you are left to your own analytical devices in determining what and how to write. It’s show rather than tell.
This, paradoxically, makes the book a good read whether or not you’re actually interested in writing about music. If you are interested, then each themed chapter is another resource to draw generic and stylistic inspiration from – learning from the masters, as Quintilian would have put it. If you are not particularly interested, the various pieces of writing on music stand well enough on their own to be simply read. Not least because, most likely, you’d never stumble upon these pieces when habitually out and about.
Bourdieu said at one point that music is beyond words, and thus has nothing to say. This opens up for critics to say anything about it; since music is beyond discourse, any discourse on the topic would have to be grounded in itself. As you might imagine, this raises the question of how to write about writing about music. If the subject matter has nothing to say, how does one go about saying things to those who wish to say something about it?
Ponder this conundrum enough, and you end up in the slightly more brutal question of how writing itself is possible. It would seem not to be, as most things point back to other things, making it inevitable to make amends to the text and include these other things. These things in turn point to other things, and as this process furthers, the text becomes either too long or – as is more often the case – incoherent. There is no starting point. The constant referencing and necessity to invoke other things to say what’s to be said limits the ability to write anything. Yet there is clear, coherent writing, and this points to its possibility. Like a bumblebee, it flies.
How do you dance about architecture? How do you explore the possible spaces afforded by the music that surrounds you? How do you turn the oontz oontz oontz drum drum oontz into an ecstatic heartpounding in your reader?
The impulse remains. Make it fly.