On Writing About Music and Making Music

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I spend about equal time writing about music and making music and these experiences are quite different from one another. When I’m writing about music I’m on the outside of it, listening in. It feels like the music is far away—as if it’s a foreign craft practiced by a different kind of person than me sitting here deleting words and reordering sentences and trying to get a few ideas clear. Because the music feels far away I keep trying to conjure it up mentally—by remembering a sound, or imagining how it feels to play an instrument, and so on. But even though the music is far away, the flow of writing becomes its own kind of associative music: ideas emerge mid-phrase, concepts connect, and I’ll find myself growing ever more excited about some small thing. In the best moments, writing about music feels like flying at 40,000 feet and seeing the lay of the landscape below. When I’m playing music—improvising myself towards what will eventually be “composed” pieces—the writerly need to define and explain is all but extinguished by my conviction that the sounds are “saying” all I need to say at this moment. If we define music as a special modality of knowing ourselves and the world, then maybe that explains why when I’m playing music my senses feel supercharged—as if memory, perception, and anticipation have found their ideal feedback loop. In the best moments playing music is an ideal mind-body flow experience.

Both writing about music and playing it have their unsettling aspects though. Writing about music is in constant need of reality checks—it has to remember to keep referring to the original sounding sonic sign or else the described signified will float off into irrelevance. At the same time, writing about music has to achieve more than simply enumerating what’s happening over the music’s time. It has to somehow deploy focused thinking on a massive scale to engage and capture some of music’s grand magic. Having good case studies to riff off of helps, but the key is imaginatively conveying one’s deep reading of a music’s significance and implications. In an ideal situation, this kind of writing would be, well, musical. (Which reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s discussion of rhythm in writing.) Though I haven’t figured out how to write like this, I have explored it though my reading of remarkable writers such as Kodwo Eshun, Paul Morley, and David Sudnow. You can learn more about them in my Popular Music article here. Also: go buy their books!

An unsettling aspect of playing music is how easily it co-opts my emotions and entangles me in a polyphony of feelings. (This is why I loathe like TV commercials—the music is telling me what to feel!) As a composer, I’m suspicious of music’s emotional power because that power can be misused, trivialized, or even over-interpreted. To illustrate: I’ll work on twenty pieces, then come back to them a year later (or more), only to realize that twelve of them really suck. They suck in the sense that they haven’t retained the emotional power I thought they once had. I blame my playing ability here, but also my judgment: what state was I in to think that those pieces were any good? Somehow the process of getting into the musical moment back then dulled my critical thinking skills. Fortunately I have an after the fact corrective: throw out all the sucky pieces, leaving only the ones that still sound good. Even so, it’s unsettling to know that I’m frequently wrong about the affect of my own music.

While neither writing about music nor playing music are substitutes for one another, they do have one thing in common: they’re all about affect. Playing music is living the urtext and becoming one with the experience itself, while writing about music describes its meanings and uses, its potentials and ambiguities. Music is the endurance animal, while writing chases after it over a distance, always one step behind where neither one thought it could go.

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