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Writing About Music Is Like Dancing About Architecture?


Geoff Grace

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"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

-- Elvis Costello, in an interview by Timothy White entitled "A Man out of Time Beats the Clock." Musician magazine No. 60 (October 1983), p. 52.

If that's true, then what are we doing in these forums? :eek:

 

:D

 

Hmm...

 

Of course, we seem to spend far more energy writing about gear, recording methods, and recording artists than we do writing about the music itself.

 

So, is writing about music really stupid?

 

And who first made the famous dancing about architecture comment? Was it Elvis Costello? Martin Mull? Thelonious Monk? Frank Zappa? Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Here's a link to research regarding the origins of this comparison:

 

Talking about music is like dancing about architecture

 

Best,

 

Geoff

My Blue Someday appears on Apple Music | Spotify | YouTube | Amazon

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Since we don't know where the quote originated from, we can only guess about the original context it was used in.

 

If I were to presume it's context, it sounds like this person is making a derogatory statement about music writers and music critics, not musicians.

 

It's like that other old quote that was attributed to someone like Louie Armstrong or Miles Davis: "If you have to ask what Jazz is, you'll never know" (or something to that effect).

 

In my view there's nothing wrong with musicians discussing their craft. We only stand to gain by sharing our techniques and experiences.

 

I think your quote is intended to be disparaging to music critics and music writers who fail to appreciate the art form that they're criticising. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder..... ;)

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Well, there's writing, and there's writing.

 

What we do here is really dialogue, and much more like talking about music than writing it. Not that we never post treatises, but it's not the norm - we're exchanging information and opinions - LOTS of opinions.

 

I also seem to remember some serious dance tunes on "More Songs About Buildings and Food." I'm sure they weren't just the food songs. :D

 

Daf

I played in an 8 piece horn band. We would often get bored. So...three words:

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Elvis Costello, while originally interesting has long since demostrated himself to be, at least to many, a fool capable of racially insulting Ray Charles in the name of punk rock cred, a self-important artiste, a really poor "classic jazz" singer &, as this proves , a dispenser of hoary cliches.

Long live Bonnie Bramlett!

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Well, in a way, I believe it's a worthy analogy. My brother is an architect ... I can't imagine dancing to blueprints, BUT, I can imagine trying ... :)

 

From a physoiological standpoint, consider that music uses primarily the right side, or spatial, abilities of the brain, while wordsmithing is linear, and uses the left side of the brain. It is interesting that we commonly consider the right side "creative" and left "technical". Certain math processes are right-brained; some are left. Computer programming is right-brained; logical debate is left. Of course I'm no expert but I've read up on this just a little because I find it fascinating.

 

Anyway, I disagree with his insult that "it's a stupid thing to do." (see above) I've used the quote many times myself, and I don't think he's the originator of it.

 

Personally, I think the comment is more useful or relevant as a sort of apology, or, no, more as a qualifier, when one is attempting to decribe music with words.

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"I am not certain how original my contribution to music is as I am obviously an amateur." Patti Smith

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GGirl, you might read the book Music, the Brain & Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain.

Divisions of the brain, especially as to music, are not as definite as the popular mind has reduced them.

Both sides of the brain handle various musical areas, often in a way musch different than we may imagine.

 

But about the cliche, it may have some validity, but it's really more a glib remark than an in-depth consideration, IMHO.

After all, we could insert a lot of differnt terms in place of either "music" or "architecture" & it would apply as well. Taken to logical extension it just suggests that describing is not equivalent to doing.

 

Oh, & Costello? What's he done lately other than draw Diana Krall's judgement into question? :D

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Well, I believe it's true that music itself is best understood through listening and performance. But while writing alone can't convey understanding of music, it can help.

 

And certain more practical, nuts-and-bolts aspects of the musical performance experience, like what boards are best for what things, are probably better conveyed through writing. Since in many cases there is more to musical performance than sound, certain ideas, like "don't use the orange extension cords from Home Depot on stage, it makes you look like an amateur, get the black ones instead" are important and can be far better conveyed through written word than musical experience.

 

Bartolomeo

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Elvis must have paraphrased this comment from Laurie Anderson, who reportedly stole it from comedian Steve Martin. The actual phrase Laurie said was "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture...". She included this phrase in several of her stage monologues and I remember her using this phrase as long ago as the mid-80's. That was probably before the term "house music" was widely used... :D
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Interesting replies so far!

 

My own take on this is that there are some things you can talk about and other things you just have to experience. I believe that music must first be experienced before it can be talked about. Even then, while we can notate music and talk about chords, melodies, timbres, and rhythms, there are elements of music that just can't be put into words...

 

Best,

 

Geoff

My Blue Someday appears on Apple Music | Spotify | YouTube | Amazon

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Words codify our experience. They are the building blocks of memory and intelligence. We can discuss any subject, and the discussion can be effective, but never fully effective. You can describe LA verbally to someone who's never been there, and they'll learn a lot about LA if they listen, but it won't be the same as actually GOING there.

 

So, the quote is silly. Dancing is not our primary means of communication and thought, but words are. You can't learn everything about music from words, but words can teach you things about music that it might take you a long time to learn without the benefit of a discussion with a knowledgeable person.

The Black Knight always triumphs!

 

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Prolly the dumbest quote in the history of intellectual and artistic persuit.

 

Who was it that wrote, "People say that I got no repect but everything means less than zero."?

 

Couldn't have been Shakespeare ...

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Originally posted by member # 30687:

GGirl, you might read the book Music, the Brain & Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain.

Divisions of the brain, especially as to music, are not as definite as the popular mind has reduced them.

Both sides of the brain handle various musical areas, often in a way musch different than we may imagine.

 

But about the cliche, it may have some validity, but it's really more a glib remark than an in-depth consideration, IMHO.

After all, we could insert a lot of differnt terms in place of either "music" or "architecture" & it would apply as well. Taken to logical extension it just suggests that describing is not equivalent to doing.

 

Oh, & Costello? What's he done lately other than draw Diana Krall's judgement into question? :D

Second the "Music, the Brain and Ecstasy" reference. This is a really fine book that connects our enjoyment of music to neuroscience in an extremely readable fashion.

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this quote reminds me of our old drummer. when we were writing new songs, we sometimes discusse what to do with some of the parts. He didn't like it at all and always shouted "don't talk about music, just play".

Rudy

 

 

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Originally posted by Geoff Grace:

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Why wouldn't you want to dance about architecture?

 

Architecture should be about human motion - or decisions made to stay in one place because it is plesant.

 

Seperating architecture from movement is one of the reasons so much modern architecture is so awful.

 

As for talking about music, talking can be music. That is certainly true in Rap and also of Sprechensang such as is heard to good effect in Schonberg's Pierrot Lunaire and some of Nina Hagen's music.

 

So this quote gets no points out of two.

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Architecture has been called "Frozen Music". And, interestingly, architecture is second only to music in being the most abstract art. (Photography is the least, then writing, then painting, then sculpture, dance, architecture, and finallly music.) The painter and choreographer Oscar Schlemmer actually had people dancing about architecture! My bachelor of architecture thesis was on movement in architecture, though architecture is basically static.

 

There is something to the quote, though. I understand the spirit, which is to say that writing about music rarely captures its essence. It is mainly circling about the object - "teasing the abyss" (which is what was said about Kafka's writing, by the way). With folks like Zappa (which is who I first heard the quote attributed to), I think they are unfortunately pre-occupied with the critics in the popular music press.

 

It is hard to talk about the arts but to me it is interesting and essential. And I love cross-pollination of the arts so to me it is great to paint about music, dance about architecture, photograph about sculpture, write poems about cooking, etc. These things are more similar than different.

 

Chaso

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Chaso,

 

Good post, but I would argue that painting is more abstract than sculpture, as painting uses illusion to create perspective. A sculpture can be an accurate model of an actual object, as both the object and the sculpture are in 3D. Paintings require a 3D to 2D translation with all of the related distortion.

The Black Knight always triumphs!

 

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I always enjoyed the quote, even as I continue to write about music. The quote makes a salient point about the difficulty (futility?) of writing about something that is abstract as music. But some of the most insightful, poetic, or knowing of us can sometimes achieve these heights nevertheless.
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Oh it's not as bad as dancing. Especially for keyboard players. :P

 

But there is a barrier. Here's a quote from Lyle Mays that I found interesting....

 

Dude, it's hard to put into words. I mean, I've always thought that music has it's own logic and syntax and vocabulary ... and you sort of think in music. You frame thoughts in musical terms and it would take far longer to express in words the thought that make you decide to play ... THAT. But it is a kind of thinking, it just happens in that ... in that world. But yes, I think about music.

 

... can you sense the struggle? :D

 

Jerry

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why not write about music? why not discuss music? why not write about whatever the fuck you want to write about.

 

elvis is a musician not a fucking writer so he doesnt know shit about writing and what people "should" or "shouldnt" write.

 

elvis costello is a fucking cunt and a dick head. end of story.

 

who the fuck takes anything any musician says seriously anyways? they may make nice jingles but most musicians in the public eye speak a load of shit. its their way of trying to be kool or smart or "alternative" fucking charletons the lot of them.

 

musicians should shut the fuck up and make music.

 

now fuck off.

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Perhaps the term "Writing about Music Is Like Dancing About Architecture" has really no meaning whatsoever. In my opinion, it could refer to the communication between two musicians, who know music, and understand its language.

 

I've found this very evident at my work place, where if I do talk about music, the only feed back from my co-workers is that they like "so and so" or they prefer "so and so". Talking to them about the actual workings of music leaves them totally confused especially if they're not musicians themselves, walking away wondering why or how the conversation ever started.

 

Perhaps the analogy to architecture is the same. We could possibly perceive what is meant by one that has studied architecture, but do we really understand the inner workings of that trade?

 

Just a thought for what it's worth.

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Erlic

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