I’ve been saying the above phrase as often as possible for the last few years: it’s my own personal counterpoint to the oft-expressed adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. My bugbear is that most music writing isn’t writing about music; it’s largely literary criticism applied to music (and, thus, mostly lyrics) plus some historical / cultural context (“X is in a lineage from Y” rather than “X sounds like ∉ because they did ♣ with Ψ”). The stuff that steps beyond this, that deals with sound, with texture, with consumption (with technology, or musicology itself, which is beyond my expertise), is the stuff that fascinates me.
The other month I had the pleasure of interviewing a prominent art historian about his research. The next 300 words or so are taken straight from that interview, after the conversation turned to areas where, as a music writer or some semblance thereof, I felt very strongly that the experiences and bugbears I describe above became violently analogous to what the professor was saying. It’s pretty much verbatim from the tape, minus one short interjection by me where I explain how much I identify with what’s being said.
“The other thing which gets me out of bed is wrestling with the solution to a problem common to all art historians, which I’ll express in a banal way: if pictures, or sculpture, could be represented in words there’d be no need to make them as pictures and sculptures. They’re self-sufficient, they’re very rich, they work in a form of cognition which I think you can only call sensuous – they appeal to eye and hand. And we’re left, as art historians, in the odd position of trying to use words to capture something that quite properly lies beyond words. It doesn’t mean that painting and sculpture are not intellectual; they’re incredibly intellectual, it’s just that the form in which the expression is couched is not verbal. So we’re in a ‘silly’ profession if you like. It’s very difficult to overcome. Students in schools are not trained in ‘visuality’, so if you give people a picture to write about, everybody tries to go through the picture to talk about what lies beyond, as though the picture reflects ideology X or reality Y, and it’s an obvious and easy temptation. It’s not just students who do this, its art historians as well – a great deal of the writing on Victorian art will simply assume that they can talk about the social world of Victorian life of which the picture is a product. But I think ‘no’, the word is mediation, and that means we’ve got to pay attention to texture, to brushstroke, to colour, to composition, to what the artist is working with, the expectations of the audiences (which is plural, because there are many audiences). The whole thing is incredibly difficult to unpick and we’ve got to find a way of using words that keeps the work of art and the experience of works of art central to the discourse.”
You could very easily switch the words ‘art’ etcetera to ‘music’ and so on, and it would make perfect sense. To me, it means exactly the same as “a song doesn’t have to mean something: it is something,” but it elucidates and expresses itself better, couches the argument fully. So there it is.