Writing about music

by Pål Angelskår

When Thelonius Monk stated that «Writing about music is like dancing about architecture» he wasn’t being clever. It was just one of those moments where you give up on language, and spit something out - anything - just to see if it sticks, like in a songwriting session ten minutes before the deadline. The quote is telling us that musical appreciation is subjective, and that in some respects criticism is pointless. Why do I like Abba so much? I don’t know, I just like them. Their songs make me happy, or maybe sad, but in a good way. Do I like Abba for the same reasons I like Radiohead or Miles Davis? I’m not sure, probably not, but I do like them all.  Writing about music always implies writing about oneself, how a song or an album makes you feel. Does it put you in a certain mood, does it make you feel smart, indifferent or stupid? Is it beneath or above your cultural self?

 

We like to think that criticism can help us with some kind of truth, but it merely offers an opinion and any viewpoint is a personal one. If you are a critically acclaimed artist I’m sure you have a pretty strong belief in the potential of criticism. If you’re not, well then you don’t.  

 

The character in The Little Hands of Asphalts «Writing About Music» is likely a critic who seems to be aware both of his responsibility as a critic and the limitations of criticism. The problem is: He just doesn’t care anymore. He used to able to «hear the full range. The piercing highs, the rumbling lows», but now he’s just filling his four weekly columns with as sharp a pen as possible. His own voice and wordplay outrank the music it is criticising. To give the tiresome work some meaning he has to put himself first. And don’t we all?

 

When we talk about music we are most often talking about who we are and who we identify ourselves with. We are sharing from our lives. When I traded mixtapes with friends (and girlfriends) as a kid - I did it either to show them who I was, or to make them understand who I thought they were. No explanation, just songs. Here you are – my life compressed down to 90 minutes. A tiny biography that will help you understand who I am and where I come from. But taping and collecting is easier and more honest than writing. And even though the making of mixtapes involves the measuring of quality, it comes with no consumer guide. If you left a guilty pleasure in there, you don’t have to defend it, you can just plead guilty, the admission is already on tape. 

 

The cruelty of musical criticism becomes clear when you’re actually making music. I remember a review (I remember them all) of a record I did when I was still in my twenties. The critic stated that some of my songs was obviously inspired by the American songwriter Beth Orton. I had nothing against Beth Orton (I still don’t), I’d just never heard her music. And while I do understand the critics need for comparisons, what I do not get is the amount of certainty it’s presented with – the dancing about architecture-part. 

 

«Writing about music» seems to offer a glimpse into the mind of such a critic. He is a man who would rather be anywhere else. I’m sure he used to care for his work, but that was before. Now his glass is «half empty» and «a judgement passes easily» from his «cold dead hands». I know that guy. I’ve read his reviews. I might have even googled his name just to see what he looks like. But unlike back then, I can’t help but feeling sorry for the guy; having to dance about architecture without being the Fred Astaire of words.

 

Pål Angelskår is the songwriter and singer for the Norwegian band Minor Majority, with several Norwegian Grammys under their belt, as well as a solo artist. He's also a published fictional writer.

is like

by Ola Innset

 

What is the song “Writing about music” like? I could say it’s like a boisterous mountain stream at the height of melting season. The law of gravity plays a part in determining the course of the waterfall, it’s not entirely unpredictable. Neither is the flow of the song, which follows more human conventions like musical key and beat signature. Still, the sheer overflow of melting water from the glaciers gives the melody and beat of those free flowing first verses a spontaneous playfulness, leading me to compare the song to a summer’s day.

 

In doing so, however, I am committing that cardinal sin of writing about music. Some believe that Elvis Costello was the one who said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s really a stupid thing to want to do.” All though I can share Elvis’ presumed frustration with mean critics or lazy content producers just naming instruments and copy-pasting from the press release, I do think this is a stupid opinion. Dancing about architecture is one thing, but the broader implication to be derived from the possible habit of Costello of making sweeping general statements, is that you can’t do one art about another. But of course you can! You can make sculptures of fictional characters, paintings of ballerinas and yes: books about music - how it sounds, how it feels, where it comes from and what it does to people.

 

Writing isn’t just any art form either. None of them are, but the act of using language to describe the world, what we see, hear, feel and perceive, isn’t “just” art. It’s how we communicate. Not only with each other, but really also with ourselves. It’s how we think, I think.

 

Funnily, I’ve always been uneasy with the idea that you write a song. Unless you compose melodies by writing scores and sheet music, the only thing you’re really writing are the words of the song. The melody, chord progression, rhythm and all of those admittedly more musical elements of a song, are things that have somehow been thought up, rather than “written” as an act of creation. But maybe that’s just the thing, maybe that’s actually what writing is: thinking. You can see where I’m going with this: Is thinking about music really such a stupid thing to want to do? I’d say it’s inevitable. And the main way, if not the only way in which we do write or think about anything is by using metaphors (or similes). Comparing things to each other, saying that one thing is like another thing. Even Elvis Costello does this.

 

Sjur Lyseid of The Little Hands of Asphalt is someone who has written a lot about music. Not in articles or in books, but in songs. The band name itself is a reference to a bootleg album by none other than Elvis Costello. Some would consider this too brainy, and instead subscribe to the Bobmarleyesque idea music should just hit you (and you feel no pain). It’s certainly a beautiful thought, and in addition to the implication that writers shouldn’t bother musicians with their easily passed judgments, the quote perhaps wrongly attributed to Elvis Costello gets at the same notion: That music should be experienced directly, not mediated by writing or even thinking – just felt.

 

I think this is romantic more than it is true. How cerebral! But the quest for truth is romantic in itself, and I don’t think we ruin music by thinking or even writing about it. On the contrary! And I truly love exactly the type of music Sjur writes, which is often about other music. “From ABC to XTC”, these are songs that grow out of an audible love for other songs, records, bands and sounds. Sjur is a fan. He’s not in love with his own songs or the sound of his own voice, but with music in and of itself. That’s true romance.

Ola Innset has written two novels, Lisboa and Firenze, as well as several non-fiction books. He's also a journalist and a songwriter and singer in Elva, Sunturns & Making Marks.

dancing about architecture

by Morten Myklebust

 

I still don’t know who originally said, or wrote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” Some attribute it to Zappa, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, others to Billy Idol, and once at a party I heard someone swear it was Billy Joel. I’m not even sure how to apply this quote in conversation, other than as a way of saying “This isn’t really worth discussing”. Also, the only people I know who use this quote are people with a desperate need to talk and/or write about music. I count myself as one of them. Also, it really isn’t. Dancing about architecture probably isn’t impossible either, with some elegant scenography or using space in an “interesting” way. Writing about music is at least very much a legitimate endeavour. The quote has a very nice ring to it though, and reminds us not to overthink and deconstruct things too much. I just think if you know that quote and have memorized it, that ship has sailed.


 

The song “Writing about Music” is interesting to me for several reasons. It states early on that “I am not the Fred Astaire of words” Something that is lyrically quite Astaire-y. Tap dancing about writing. I like how this song, like a lot of Little Hands of Asphalt songs, is quite wordy and describes so many mental polaroids, some youthful, others from the throws of adulthood with almost deterministic resignation. Then the song develops into being about what most things always are about; love and how to live your life. All of this without putting on an act, or trying to be clever. Listening to this song and the album helped me understand that there are a lot more contradictions in his music than I ever realised. Somehow, there is a clear narrative there for me when I hear it, but when I read the lyrics that dart from “ABC to XTC”, and not even rain, just a “rumoured possibility” of it raining, I realise how hard it is to tell a story without going full Springsteen. It’s like listening to someone who spends a year thinking and feeling and then the song is just the last thing they write down before going to bed. There is no emotional hand-holding here.

 

Still, it manages to force you into both thinking and feeling. There is something brittle about the voice and songwriting, a word that is rarely used as a compliment, but it is in this case. It feels like holding your breath when you take away the scaffolding and hope the house will stay up. Which it always does and even when it doesn’t it’s on purpose and you get to search for gold in the rubble.

 

Morten Myklebust has released three albums as a solo artist, and is also fronting the group Apothek. He's (secretly) working on his first novel.

Lyrics:

 

I'm not the Fred Astaire of words. I just dance about architecture: 

The home we built to calm your nerves, plus your desk job in the public sector. 

I fill four columns weekly, a sharper pen for my softer heart. 

A judgement passes easily, I dissect them into smaller parts when

 

there's a plane, no address, no terrain. 

And I’ll point it out. 

They would run, had a plan, got a gun.

And i’d point it out

with my cold, dead hands.

Cause I'm half empty

 

From ABC to XTC, I pulled them out and rearranged. 

With a nod to High Fidelity, how I once could hear the full range. 

The piercing highs, the rumbling lows. 

All the details in between personas and characters. 

They would all relate to me.

 

Here’s a hill, here’s a rock, show your skills. 

And I'll point it out.

Rinse, repeat. Glue your drums on the beat.

And I’ll point it out

with my cold dead hands.

 

New clouds overhead, as we watched the rose parade. 

“There's a rumoured possibility of rain" is what you said to me, 

Then you sighed.

 

‘Cause I'm half empty. You're half empty. 

We’re filled with reason and regrets and irony. 

You help yourself, though I need your help.

I understand it, I’d just rather be anywhere else. 

 
 

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