Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dancing about Architecture, Again

The phrase "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it's a really stupid thing to want to do" is a catchy phrase, but it has always bothered me, particularly the "really stupid thing to want to do" part, which seems to be Elvis Costello's contribution.

The first part of the phrase that refuses to die has been around since (at least) the 1970s, and many of the people who tend to use it do not seem to be people who spend their time studying and playing the stuff that we call "classical" music.

Writing intelligently about math, science, history, literature, poetry, art, philosophy, or even architecture requires discipline-specific vocabulary. Writing about music does too. The vocabulary is not that difficult to learn, but it takes time to amass, and requires a lot of listening and a lot of observation. Writing intelligently takes work, and it usually reflects intelligent thinking. I don't think that the casual user of the phrase would consider the desire to write about the above disciplines stupid, so why should it be stupid for people to want to write about music, particularly musicians?

I am a consumer of things mathematical, scientific, historical, literary, poetic, artistic, philosophical, and architectural, but I am a producer of music. I'm proud of the music-specific vocabulary I have amassed through years of experience. I feel challenged to unravel a musical mystery and excited when I am able to articulate exactly why a particular musical passage might be strong or weak. I feel proud when I can figure out (as a performer) how to bring out compositional strengths or compensate for compositional weakness in a particular piece of music. I also find it very valuable to be able to articulate interpretive concepts to students.


Anonymous said...

Here's a wee different perspective: As to the "phrase that refuses to die," I only vaguely knew the name, Elvis Costello, knew none of his music, listened a tiny bit on the Internet in the last minutes, and never heard that phrase before. Having heard a bit of his songs, I put his work aside. Not to my taste. Done. Dancing about Elvis Costello, then, could be said to be "really stupid" for some folks, eh? Costello's words come back to apply to him.

Susan Scheid said...

As someone who is neither musician nor composer and who struggles to convey in words the inspiration I get from music, while I think (hope) there is a place for expression by the passionate non-musician listener, my own efforts have only increased my admiration and respect for those who have a deep knowledge about music, the ability to think deeply about it, and the ability to convey their knowledge in writing that is informed, accessible, and engaging. You are one of those people, as I hope you know.