Why Write About Music?

March 28, 2018 · Talk

Photograph of a pencil

The following is an edited transcript of a speech delivered at the launch of Writings About Music, a journal run entirely by students of Trinity College Dublin.

It is a great pleasure to be asked to speak at the launch of this year’s Writings About Music. The editorial team kindly sent me an advance copy so I have had an opportunity to peruse the selection of writings. I find it to be a highly impressive publication, a sign of diligent, committed industry by extremely talented students. Few university music departments can lay claim to undergraduate-led projects of this calibre and nature, that extend far beyond the requirements of the university degree.

Writings About Music, then, is a rare thing indeed. The items within its pages emanate substance and spirit, resourcefulness and commitment. Creativity and imagination inhere through the written word, through musical notation and by connecting musical experience with the memes of our wider world. The contributors and the editorial team are to be congratulated unreservedly for offering compelling responses to a question, the answer to which is by no means self-evident: why write about music? Or even, why write?

Stephen Pinker reminds us in his Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century that Charles Darwin thought of writing as an unnatural act. Human beings speak as a matter of instinct. But baking, brewing and writing are not instinctual. Let’s face it, writing is a bit of a trial. It requires strange acts of dislocated devotion in the form of extended and sometimes troubling periods of confrontation with language. It requires unusual obsession with the symbolic representation of thought. Words and their arrangement matter. And perhaps most of all, it requires empathy. A writer is no good unless they can put themselves in the reader’s shoes. We know only too well that being able to speak is no guarantee of being able to write.

Writing, then, is an effortful, difficult pursuit. What we have here in this journal is evidence that there is considerable commitment to that pursuit amongst the students of Trinity College. Because they write, they show that they care about reading. And in the way that they write, they show that they care about their readers.

So why write about music? Actually, let’s turn that question around. Why read about music? Why read, silently, about something that is by its very nature not silent. Reading literary criticism, for instance, engages the same mode of activity as engaging with the subject of the writing. Writing about a novel, say, doesn’t seem such a strange thing to do. But it isn’t quite clear why one might write about music. The idea itself has a chequered history. There are those, like the English critic Hans Keller, who questioned the validity of what musicologists do, assuming that what they do, essentially is write about music. Why would you write about something that only comes in to being through action, through performance, and why would you ask someone to consider something, in silence, that needs to disturb the silence in order to have any real form of existence?

Let us answer this objection by saying that an understanding of what it means to be human is the function of writing about music, just as it is a function of writing about a novel. Whether you are scraping a bow across a string or stringing letters into words and playing with syntax, you are doing what humans do when they try to make sense of their existence. Writing about music asserts a commitment to that endeavour, it falls squarely in what we used to call the humanities. By writing about Talking Heads and Electronic Dance Music; by addressing issues in new Irish music and in dance cultures; by considering ideas of the self in the sixteenth-century and the influence of Beckett on Feldman; by engaging this range of questions in a critical questions you set your readers in pursuit of an understanding of what it means to be. In sense, music is a just vehicle towards a deeper understanding of our lives, embedded as they are in cultural pursuits of all kinds, which includes eating smoked salmon.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to write about anything is to find out what you actually think. The essay is often best used as an opportunity find out what your relation is to something that is, to you, a matter of significance. Thinking well flows from writing well. There is something magical about the grind, the syntax-fixing, the shifting of slabs of text, the word-shuffling, the throwing away and starting again. Writing is a merciless mirror one holds up towards oneself. Indeed, the Irish writer and critic, Brian Dillon, reminds us that essays are meant to be difficult. ‘Imagine a type of writing’, he says, ‘so hard to define its very name should be something like: an effort, an attempt, a trial.’

So this, for me, is why we write about music. We know that we care deeply about the subject. We are all students of music through our commitment to what it offers us as we carve pathways through our daily lives. And those of us who study for degrees in it, or those of us who teach it, are not satisfied by saying that it means something to us; we want to know why it has meaning for us, as individuals, as it does for others, and that means asking why it is that humans have the capability of creating and unravelling that meaning in the first place.

Writing is the best approach, I think, to this riddle. It isn’t easy. Doing it well is notoriously difficult. But the point I want to make is that this volume of Writing About Music that you have produced shows an extraordinary commitment to that labour. It shows that you want to know about your relation to music. You want to know what it means to be human. For me, that is an act that is of enormous value to our society. And it is in evidence aplenty between the covers of this journal. I have great admiration for the work you have done in putting it together. You deserve huge congratulations - for the contents and for the sheer fact that you have the tenacity to bring it into being. Bravo! I am already looking forward to the next edition.