Selling music through words

Writing about music is hard, and I’m not sure many people go about it in the right way. I don’t think I do either, most of the time. Unless I’m in the (padded, soundless) anechoic chamber of analysis I’m rarely completely happy with how I’ve described musical events, processes or periods of time.

But I’ve come to two tentative conclusions, so far.

One: verbs. Music is temporal and active. When you hear a sound your eardrums vibrate, you are physically changed; with another sound they vibrate again, differently: music is happening to you. This physical enactment, in more-or-less discrete portions of time, is not common among the arts and, as the central conduit of expression and meaning, is unique to music. Adjectives, the preserve of most music writing, are almost useless in this respect.

Two: nouns. You don’t have to read much writing on the visual arts – a few sentences advertising the latest exhibition at the Tate will do it – to notice the presence of concrete nouns in such writing.

Using a variety of materials including rubber, glass and gold, Horn’s work has an immense beauty and sensuality to it.

The exhibition explores ideas that interest the artist about mutability and place. Her round, colourful cast-glass sculptures seem to have a liquid surface to them, and many of her photographs analyse the nature of water.

Those nouns, telling us what the art is made of, have tremendous power. We all know what glass, gold and rubber look like, feel like, smell like. Just reading those words we have an idea (it may be completely wrong, it doesn’t matter) of what those sculptures look like. Our imagination is fired: and that is the most valuable thing any writing about the arts can do, particularly if you are trying to sell the idea of a particular concert or exhibition to someone. If you can implant that idea of the work (again, it doesn’t need to be accurate, just delineated enough to concretise itself in the mind of the reader), then you’ve got the hook and you’ve sold the ticket: the reader now has a need to compare their imagining of the work with the real thing, a need that can only be met by attending in person.


6 thoughts on “Selling music through words

  1. Tim,

    I admire your courage in taking on music writing (and I’m enjoying reading your blog) – I agree with you, it makes almost no sense to even try to write about it. Providing a foundation for intelligent, informed writing was George Lewis’ goal when he founded the Critical Studies/Experimental Practices program at UC San Diego some years ago (Lewis is now at Columbia U in New York). Since music in itself is an expanded dialogue, it makes sense that any writing about music should somehow be an extension of that dialogue.

    Unlike the Visual Arts, which, as you aptly outlined, can be described in its result, Music is a three-tiered, ephemeral process that demands interaction and subjective observation. The composer works with her/his concept, follows that with an outline for a series of musical events in a written score that is then realized through interpretive process by a performer. The idea from composer to listener is vastly changed through this process and of course changes each time a new performance occurs. For some of us, this is the joy of music!

    I have been working with visual artists for a long time in collaborative aspects and have recently come to an impasse; your writing here, in context of some recent interactions with would-be collaborators, is forcing me to realize I have little desire to work with visual artists any longer, at least for a time. The results of the two media are so vastly different, even if the process is similar, the goal toward a concrete product versus a fleeting experience is ultimately incompatible! (From my subjective and frustrated point of view at the moment!).

    On the other hand, many composers have had very fruitful dialogues with visual artists, not the least of them Morton Feldman. Still… where Feldman wrote extensively about his friends’ visual work – did it go the other way ’round? I don’t know if Rothko ever wrote about Feldman. Hmm…

    Food for thought!

  2. As someone who writes about music (non-professionally), I take your point completely, Tim. I find it interesting, however, that you chose the word ‘selling’ and not ‘describing’ in your headline for this post. I know why you did so, of course – but I wonder (as your thoughts above seem to indicate you do, too) whether or not music can ever really be ‘sold’ in words. After all, it’s only once we experience music that we buy into it … or not.


  3. FK – I wouldn’t read too much into my headlines, I’m worse at writing those than almost anything else! But ‘selling’ comes out of my first impulse for this post – which isn’t really relevant, but at the same time I couldn’t quite get away from it – which was the relationship between writing about music in general, and writing marketing material about music.

  4. When you write your own music, people can see the passion behind the words. The words you sing actually mean something to you. It has a story. It has a past.

  5. This is a stunning post Tim!!
    Grabs you, pulls you in and throws you out again.
    By focusing on the actual processes involved in writing, thinking and listening to music you make it beautiful and dynamic… full of movement and life and action.
    You introduce the relationship between language and music and how incongruent this can feel, yet we are left knowing that language is our only tool to attempt some representation that would have any meaning for others, short of the listening experience itself.

    I disagree with FK above… I think selling is the right word …its certainly a step or two beyond describing…..

    I live in Edinburgh… on Monday night I attended a concert, Queens Hall, by Garth Knox… formerly of Arditti quartet…. music by Kurtag, Dillon, Sciarrino, Ligeti, Moser, Knox, Berio….. Wonderful….

    My point is that at 44 years old…. there were maybe four people younger than me in the audience…the hall was half full or empty depending on how you look at life.

    Now I’m not sure a description helps feels passive..

    I think selling does help… when someone takes time to capture the wonder of the sound of Mr Knox’s bow when it strikes the strings of his viola d’amore….. with language……. holding a sense of the potential reader’s capacity to be drawn in and holding an interest in his desire to experience for himself… for action happens.
    The energy and motion and movement in the music, translated through language produces energy to seek out, to hear, to listen…..

    Language… words…. limited yet a precious tool to evoke desire in the other to experience the sound world that is made real through letters on page..

    ” In other words, the man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth. ”
    Jacques Lacan

  6. Eric, I’m an advertising copywriter, so I’m well aware of (but cynical about) the need to ‘sell’ with words.

    You’re right, however, that ‘description’ is too passive a word to … er … describe the way that the best writing about the arts grabs us and moves us to listen, look at or experience creativity. I used the word only because, given my own approach to classical music reviewing, I don’t want to appear to have more to offer than is really the case.

    As I said, I understood Tim’s use of the word ‘selling’; not least, because I assume he’s paid to write words that will (hopefully) sell. If that’s true, then he and I are kindred spirits … of sorts.

    Anyway, back to describing Bach’s Goldberg Variations for my next review.


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