Dancing About Architecture

dancing trio

I’ve always resisted writing about music. Someone famously said (whether it was Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or Martin Mull depends on who you ask) that it’s a bit like ‘dancing about architecture’. Which, actually, sounds rather fun: to try and compose a dance that says something about a building, to try and express the Burj Khalifa in a ballet, Falling Water in a foxtrot. I mean, why not?

Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’, which means, by implication, that music is ‘unfrozen architecture’. And maybe there is something architectural about dancing and music? The way a ballet dancer’s arm describes a certain arc, traces an invisible line; the shapes her body makes on the stage. Fiona Sampson writes of how music forms similar shapes through time, ‘almost as if the air passing down the long, skinny bassoon is drawing a diagram of what we hear’.

Writing, too, shapes itself through time. We read one word, then the next. I’ve always liked that musical quality of writing – the shape of a piece of prose as it gathers in the mind, as synapses snap and crackle and pop like fireworks in the brain. Both words and music can conjure up moments of wonder, little glimpses of understanding that vanish just as soon as they are grasped, like trying to clutch at vapour pouring from a kettle.

Music, like all art, makes us think and feel. That’s the closest I’ll come to a manifesto. A piece of music is good if it makes me think things and feel things, ideally things that I haven’t thought or felt before. I don’t really care what genre it is, if it’s traditional or experimental, old or new, if it follows the rules or throws the rulebook in the shredder. I don’t care what the person that made it looks like, or if they’re a man or a woman or neither, or what their political affiliations are. For me, the worth of a piece of music lies solely in how deeply it makes me think, how deeply it makes me feel, and how nuanced and original these thoughts and feelings are.

But that leads me back to the question: is it possible to put these thoughts and feelings into words?

Well, maybe. Kinda. That’s my cop out answer.

It’s inevitably a process of translation. We don’t feel in words and I’m not convinced we think in words either. Something always seems to be lost in the act of speaking and writing. Words never seem quite able to fully express what we mean. Music, on the other hand, does – or at least it gets close, sometimes tantalisingly close. Perhaps that’s what Walter Pater meant when he said that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’. It seems to be a fuller language, and a universal one, one that crosses barriers that other languages can’t, that says things that can’t be put into normal words. I don’t need to speak Icelandic to understand Sigur Rós or Björk. I don’t need to have been to Mali to understand Ali Farka Touré, or Tinariwen, or Amadou & Mariam. When a piece of music works, it’s electric: it makes my heart race, it reaches into my soul and prods me awake. Yes, I think. That’s what the world is like. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. That’s what it feels like to be alive.

If music can’t be expressed in words, though, then what’s the point of starting a music blog? Well, that was my conclusion for a long time. For the first quarter of a century of my life, I did nothing but listen.

And yet, I also read – hungrily, voraciously – about music. I always have. From buying NME as a teenager and discovering, in Bloc Party and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a certain formative vein of snappy, angular indie rock, to my first experiences with mp3 blogs, where I encountered Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, to Mark Richardson’s excellent ‘Resonant Frequency’ column, to the occasionally brilliant, occasionally frustratingly ‘intellectual’ music sites like The Quietus and Tiny Mix Tapes, where I first heard Sean McCann and Laurel Halo, to books like Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz and Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, mighty, half-read tomes which are in the process of expanding my knowledge of jazz and modern classical respectively. I still look at music websites almost every day, usually several times a day, and have done for the best part of a decade. When I’m staring down at my little glowing screen, my ‘me-machine’ as Joshua Ferris calls it, it’s usually because I’m checking Pitchfork for the umpteenth time that day. If I truly believed music writing was a waste of time – well, then I waste a whole lot of my time reading the stuff.

Because, really, despite what Zappa or Costello or whoever-the-hell-it-was would have us believe, writing about music is possible. Though something is always lost in translation, something is gained in the process of translation too – a glimmer of understanding, a glimpse behind the veil. Sometimes a certain metaphor will unlock a piece of music for me, help me appreciate it in a way that I couldn’t before. Sometimes a writer will articulate exactly why something feels disappointing in a way that I couldn’t previously put my finger on. And then there is the strange pleasure of reading about music you haven’t listened to. You imagine what the music being described is like, and sometimes this imagining takes on a life even more vivid and marvellous than the music itself. I walk around accompanied by the ghosts of songs I’ve never heard.

So here I am, dipping my toes in, writing about music that’s made me think and feel things. I plan to try out different approaches – personal anecdotes, close-readings of lyrics, lists, maps, doodles, poems. The music might be old or new, famous or obscure. Sometimes I might say very little, just: here is something amazing, listen. Sometimes I might, as I have here, ramble on for far too long.

I spend half my time daydreaming about music anyway. Let’s try and get something down on (virtual, imaginary) paper.

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3 thoughts on “Dancing About Architecture

  1. I would love to say something erudite, but I will for now settle for ‘thought-provoking’. Of course music and dance both exist in a continuous flow in time. The written word is more discontinuous; we tend to experience it in more discrete blocks, and it is more amenable to stopping/ starting/ rewinding.
    Looking forward to reading more. Now how do I follow this? Must ask a young adult…..

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    • Thank you for the kind words and repost, Mark. That is true about the written word. I think scientists have even shown our eyes actually leap around in little jumps while we’re reading, rather than moving smoothly or sequentially. I suppose I was thinking of words read aloud, of poetry etc, especially after quoting from Fiona Sampson.

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