When not to write about music
I’m always curious about the ways writers describe musical performance. From the end of the spectrum that terminates in refusal, we first pass through ever-thickening—paralyzing, even—reluctance to render musical performance in prose.
One example immediately comes to mind. It was a daylong symposium at a university on the subject of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The American Anthology is an extraordinary six-LP collection from 1952 of a panoply of regional styles—country blues, ballads, hillbilly banjo tunes, congregational singing, musical sermonizing, Cajun music—that has the cumulative effect of making the case for a multiplication, a making-plural of what might be understood as American folk music. These 84 recordings date from a quarter of a century earlier, from the five-year period that commenced with popularization of electrical recording and concluded with the Depression. The American Anthology has occasioned all kinds of ambitious, go-for-broke prose, notably Greil Marcus’s chapter “The Old, Weird America” from Invisible Republic, his 1997 book about Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes (a book that intriguingly was re-titled The Old, Weird America four years after its first publication); Geoffrey O’Brien’s “Back to the Country,” in his collection Sonata for Jukebox; and writing from Bob Dylan himself, in the continued self-invention that is his Chronicles: Volume One. (Am I the only one foolish enough to expect a Volume Two?)
At this symposium on the American Anthology, one would have expected little hesitation from its participants in attempting to get at the most telling or conversely the most curiously, most doggedly obscure details of texture and inflection in these recordings. There were excellent presentations on the material culture of musicians, record collectors, talent scouts, and recording engineers, but the most resonant moment for me was one of stillness, even embarrassed silence. It seemed to have much to do with the disciplinary identifications of the people who came together for this interdisciplinary series of presentations and, hopefully, conversations. Perhaps you could file it under the failings of politeness. One presentation was a performance by a husband and wife folk duo with a particular leaning toward dark, arresting balladry. When it came time to discuss a particular recording from the American Anthology, they began with caveats, apologies: we’re just musicians, we’re not academics, we’re not trained to speak of such things. The historians joined right in: we’re not musicians, we’re not artists, and above all we’re not musicologists. There was an uneasy détente that spoke volumes about not speaking about music.
But when best not to write about music? I find the most productive, most compelling silences on the subject of music to come in works of literature that are all about the build to a performance event and all about the steady erasure of memory after the event. Two exemplary works that pass over music in silence or nearly so are John Ashbery’s prose poem “The Recital” (from Three Poems) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled. In The Unconsoled, the odds grow steadily longer that its concert-pianist protagonist will be able to perform at event that is the reason for his traveling to an unfamiliar city. In “The Recital,” the concert referenced in the poem’s title seems to occur—to have occurred—but in the telling its lacuna is less one of awkward silence than of meaningful, wildly suggestive omission.
David Grubbs is Associate Professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. As a musician, he has released twelve solo albums and appeared on more than 150 commercially released recordings. His most recent book is Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014).
The image used at the beginning of this post is by EvilAlivE and features a 1967 Fender Jazz Bass.