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Cooking About Architecture; CEOs and Poets

March 25, 2011 | by

“Writing about music is like cooking about architecture” is a quote that has been variously ascribed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, and Brian Eno, but can you suggest any books that suggest contrariwise? Or should I set to work on that cassoulet about Le Corbusier? —Arnold S.

My favorite newish book of criticism, August Kleinzahler’s Music: I-LXXIV moved me to tears and laughter, generally at once. Kleinzahler is equally opinionated on the subjects of German Romantics, hard bop, and Liberace. The fact that I knew nothing about any of them did not lessen my enjoyment of Kleinzahler’s prose. When Kleinzahler’s writing, I could happily read an essay about riding the bus in San Diego or seeing a stupid movie on Christmas Eve. (In fact I recommend that book, too.) If you are a midcentury jazz guy, I suggest Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, biographical vignettes that manage (at least for this reader) also to be about the music. If you want to read about pop music, check out Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives, with standout essays by Benjamin Kunkel, Sheila Heti, Peter Terzian, and our own John Jeremiah Sullivan. And if you want to read a deceptively deep little treatise on the whole idea of music criticism—at least when it comes to pop—read Carl Wilson’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series: Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

True story: I know a guy who wrote to CEOs as a kid, proclaiming how strongly he wanted to be a top business executive when he grew older. Years of persistent snail mail, and finally, in his late teens, he caught the attention of a wealthy business tycoon who offered him an internship at his company. Now, in his mid-twenties, this man is the head of university relations at an educational start-up company, working under the same businessman that hired him as a teenager. And now for my question: what is the likelihood of such dreams coming true in the literary sphere? —Fred

Happens all the time. Just replace CEOs with quarterliesbusiness executive with poetwealthy business tycoon with editorhead of university relations at an educational start-up company with poet, and subtract several hundred thousand dollars a year.

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  1. Mark | March 25, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Air guitar: essays on art & democracy by Dave Hickey has some good writing about music.

  2. Lorin Stein | March 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    It certainly does!

  3. Cleveland Music Scene | March 26, 2011 at 1:02 am

    You have to go beyond just writing about the music scene. You need multimedia. You need to experience it.

  4. Helen DeWitt | March 26, 2011 at 5:51 am

    Charles Rosen – would happily read everything he has written, but my piano was in storage for a long time so I can recommend only The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation from the days before my first book was published. The Glenn Gould Reader. Joseph Szigeti, Szigeti on the Violin. Schoenberg, Style and Idea (collection of essays); Theory of Harmony. Claude Abromont & Eugene de Montalembert, La théorie de la musique. I seem to remember reading a wonderful collection of essays by Boulez, but I can’t remember the title. Edward Said’s On Late Style. There are probably other obvious things I’m forgetting, but my books were also in storage for a long time and some seem to have gone missing.

  5. Dylan Hicks | March 27, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    That “ … dancing about architecture” line is about as clever as anti-intellectualism gets, and has certainly proved enduring, but writing about music is no more futile than singing about love. (Which is to say: often futile, but the exceptions are everything.) I second the above endorsements of Carl Wilson and Dave Hickey and would add a few more, focusing on good-to-outstanding stylists (though of course some valuable music criticism has been done in plain and sometimes subpar prose). For jazz from the beginning through the early ’70s or so, Martin Williams’s “The Jazz Tradition” and “Jazz Heritage” remain essential: elegantly written, alert to the wider world, full of sharp technical analysis that that amateur- or non-musicians can follow well enough. Gary Giddins’s two big collections of Village Voice columns do a nice job of bringing the story up to the turn of the last century. Also: Amira Baraka, Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather, Ben Ratliff, Stanley Crouch. Geoff Dyer is among my favorite living writers, and “But Beautiful” is an admirable book in many ways, but Dyer’s jazz criticism tends to frustrate me, especially his silly contention that nothing worthwhile has (or had) ever been written about it, and his conveniently vague near-blanket dismissals of recent jazz, exhausting to anyone who’s been paying closer attention. For the so-called Great American Songbook, start with Alec Wilder’s “American Popular Song.” Greil Marcus, with his passion and rangy intellect, makes you want to hear (or hear again) everything he writes about; start with “Mystery Train” or “Lipstick Traces.” Other great rock critics: Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis, Simon Frith. Then there’s Peter Guralnick on country, blues, and soul; Robert Palmer on blues; Tony Heilbut on gospel; Bill Malone and Nick Toches on country; Greg Tate on hip hop; Dylan’s “Chronicles”; Dick Hebdige; well, there are a lot of folks, including a lot of younger ones.

    A few canonical or at least dead writers who wrote wonderfully about music, especially the seemingly ineffable feeling of falling in love with a piece of live or recorded music: Nietzsche (esp. on Bizet); Thomas Mann (Hans Castorp and his record player); Schopenhauer; Philip Larkin on the jazz he loves (useless on the stuff he hates); Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Thomas Bernhard. Among contemporary fiction writers Jonathan Lethem is very smart on music, as are Dana Spiotta, Mary Gaitskill, and James Hynes (last year’s “Next” has a finely described soundtrack). For architectural dancing, turn up the Modern Lovers’ “Government Center” or Bill Monroe’s “I’m Workin’ on a Building” and see what happens.

  6. Clayton Peacock | March 28, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Amen on the Carl Wilson.

    Other strong titles in the 33 1/3 series:

    20 Jazz Funk Greats (Throbbing Gristle, 1979) – Drew Daniel
    In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel, 1998) – Kim Cooper
    Master of Reality (Black Sabbath, 1971) – John Darnielle

    The last author, John Darnielle, began his blog & online community, Last Plane To Jakarta, in 2001 explicitly to promote writing about music. Check it out here:

    Finally, let’s not forget Baudelaire’s preface to Les Fleurs du mal:

    “Poetry is related to music through prosody, whose roots go deeper into the human soul than any classical theory indicates.”

  7. Randy Frank | April 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Marcel Proust, even in translation, is able to bring music alive through words. The “little phrase” of a favorite sonata is an important part of In Search of Lost Time, almost a character in itself.

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