The other day me and Ellis were talking about music reviews. I was saying how I’ve never really thought they were particularly good or worthwhile and Ellis said he thought that when done well they were a really good way to write about music. We talked about it for a while and concluded that we didn’t like it when people just describe music to us, because we can listen to music ourselves, but reviews that have real and interesting thoughts about pieces of music and their place in the world or in the writer’s own lives are a good thing.
Here is a piece of ‘music writing’ from Carson McCuller’s ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’. I think its the best piece of writing about music I’ve ever read. Its about a 12 year old girl called Mick listening to Beethoven for the first time.
“How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or a march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her – the real plain her.” pg 107
The other week I went to a day of talks/performances about writing sound at the Arnolfini Gallery. The day formed a satisfying loop of listening on listening, of sounds passing from mouth to ear whilst every brain focused on that very process. Here is one definition/description of writing sound from Patrick Farmer.
“To write sound, which is different to writing about sound one need not entertain the notions of beginnings or ends/linearity/plot/in this way sound may emerge as life may emerge from a pond.” Patrick Farmer
Something that I took from the day is an awareness of the interconnected nature of sound, the way it does not stop at sight or touch but rather overlaps the other senses as well as physical processes like thought and speech. This is where the difficulty in writing (about) sound comes in. When writing (about) something so wholly connected its all too easy to detach it from these elements and reduce it to the artificial category of “sounds”. But with sound writing, as this day showed, we have an opportunity to do something all together more creative, intelligent and interesting.
I think its crucial that music reviews also take into account these aspects of writing sound. To review a record is to review not just a cultural artifact, but also a sound that enters the world and physically affects us. When I write about music I think I want to write about lots of different things; about art and culture and human bodies and human brains.
What I find useful in these two quotes from Farmer and McCullers is the emphasis on non-linearity and the difficulty of keeping track of music in that linear way – “she could not even hear what sounded after.” Sound emerges and recedes like a tide and the idea that it starts and stops, separate from the other sounds we hear, or even the other sounds inside our heads is false and self-imposed. To write about music we have to think about what we hear all the time in our brains and write that too because that is part of any music we listen too. That is why the music that sounds most beautiful to us sometimes is the music that just sounds like us, or like home.
“This was her, Mick Kelly”