Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, September 25, 2004


A post by Kyle Gann inspired an argument between Scott Spiegelberg and A. C. Douglas over whether it is possible to verbally describe how music works, Mr. Douglas taking the line that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (to quote a phrase that Mr. Douglas did not use but that Alex Ross brought up by way of jumping into the discussion, saying the line had been attributed to, among others, Schopenhauer, whereas I, no lie, had heard the line attributed to Martin Mull), and Mr. Spiegelberg taking the line that, of course, describing music verbally is possible, with which Mr. Ross agrees, as does professional harpist Helen Radice. (I haven’t linked to the original posts, but Scott Spiegelberg does here, along with others.)

Regular readers here will not be surprised to see that I agree that yes, verbal communication about music is not only possible, but often interesting. Mr. Douglas himself has made persuasive arguments as to why one of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is superior to another; his argument about the futility of writing about music has more to do with using technical language for an audience that lacks technical training (seems self-evident), and the irrelevance of cultural context to understanding music. (I disagree here, big time -- cultural context can help explain A LOT as to why the country music that Seattle’s downtown MacDonald’s played continuously a couple years ago to annoy and repel the young African American men who hung out there did indeed annoy them.)

Mr. Douglas is a furious rhetorician, but he says something that strikes me as worthwhile: that one can’t imagine that “prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music that merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener.”

While I agree with Mr. Douglas -- words are no substitute for the music -- I doubt that Mr. Spiegelberg or Mr. Ross or Mr. Gann would disagree. Words (Mr. Douglas’s very much included) can help someone hear a piece of music BETTER. And -- words can capture something of the character of a piece of music -- I’m probably simple-minded, but right now I’m simply confused by the word "essential" here. And -- as Mr. Spiegelberg says -- words are no substitute for a painting either.

If one had never heard music, then words about it wouldn’t have meaning. But music is universal (in the kingdom of the hearing), and just about everyone has some experience and memory to draw upon when reading or talking or listening to talk about music.

Despite my disagreements with it, I find the above quote from Mr. Douglas especially worthwhile because it points out that we’re rubbing elbows with the mystery of communication here. Someone puts a few syllables together, and POW, my heart’s all a-flutter. Someone pulls a taut bundle of horsetail across a taut catgut strung across some hollow wood, and ZAM, I’m in tears. And yet -- that flutter, and those tears, may not be what the creators of the syllables and the sounds had in mind. Any attempt at communication is a calculated gamble. Writing about music, playing a Sonatina, talking to your beloved -- any time something of what you intend gets across, it’s a wonderful, mysterious event.

That doesn’t mean we can’t describe HOW the mysterious stuff works, but I doubt very much that we’ll ever really understand WHY. Something about emotion, and empathy, and imagination (without which there is no empathy) -- . . . anything clearer than that eludes me.

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