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Dancing About Architecture
by James Patrick Kelly 

ekphrasis

Every once in a while, some wit will make a remark that passes almost immediately from droll insight to celebrated maxim. Consider for example: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Who first said it? George Carlin? Elvis Costello? Miles Davis? The origins of this observation are murky, although Costello attributes it to the multitalented Martin Mull <en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Mull>, who reportedly uttered it in 1979, according to the Detroit Free Press. However, there is an instance of a similar comment in the February 9, 1918, issue of The New Republic <freakonomics.com/ 2010/12/quotes-uncovered-dancing-about -architecture>: “Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics.”

In the eighteenth century, critics invented a word for our artistic dilemma: ekphrasis <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Ekphrasis>. It derives from the ancient Greek, combining the prefix ex- (out) with the verb phrazein (to point out or explain). Wikipedia longwindedly defines ekphrasis as “a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.” Me, I take it to mean writing about art. Plato, for instance, would have pointed to the extended passage in the Iliad that describes the images embossed on the shield of Achilles <poets.org/poem/iliad-book-xviii-shield-achilles> as the first and most excellent ekphrasis. English majors might suggest “Ode on a Grecian Urn” <poetryfoundation.org/poems /44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn>, by John Keats, as a more modern example. Indeed, while describing the musician rendered on the eponymous pot, Keats describes music as well as painting: “Heard melo­dies are sweet, but those unheard /
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.”

There is a proud tradition of ekphrastic writing about music in the fantastic genres. In fact, there is probably more writing about music in our genre than about any other art form. Genre writers have been invoking the Orpheus myth <madelinemiller.com/myth-of-the-week-orpheus> since Jason and the Argonauts set sail to find the Golden Fleece. Many of us have been both writers and accomplished musicians, like Lloyd Biggle, Jr <sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/biggle_lloyd _jr>, S.P. Somtow <somtow.com>, Edgar Pangborn <sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/pangborn_edgar>, Michael Moorcock <en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Moorcock>, Anne McCaffrey <pernhome.com/aim>, and Barry Malzberg <sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/malzberg_barry_n>. Did you know that Phillip K. Dick was a classical music DJ? Here’s an eleven-hour play­list of his favorites: <openculture.com/
2014/05/philip-k-dicks-favorite-classical-music.html
>. From the Middle Earth Songbook <tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Songs> to the Satanic heavy metal of George R.R. Martin’s Armageddon Rag <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Armageddon_Rag>, we keep dancing. Two of my favorite music stories from these pages are Nebula finalists “Dori Bangs” by Bruce Sterling and Howard Waldrop’s “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance.”

And then there’s Sarah Pinsker <sarahpinsker.com>.

writer/singer/songwriter

Sarah’s work has won four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award, the Locus Award, the Eugie Foster Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. Several of her award winners have centered on music and musicians, including the novel A Song For A New Day <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_
Song_for_a_New_Day
>, the novelette, “Our Lady of the Open Road,<podomatic.com/podcasts/asimovs/episodes/2016-03-08T08_01_19-08_00>, and the short story, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” <uncannymagazine.com/article/where-oaken-hearts-do-gather>. She is also a singer/songwriter with four albums on various independent labels, the third with her rock band, the Stalking Horses. Click to this concert/interview <youtube.com/watch?v=k8aBfrF8_94> to sample some of her music.

I thought if anyone was qualified to have opinions about the challenges and rewards of writing about music, it’s Sarah. Happily for us, she agreed to an interview, even though at the time she was teaching a writing workshop in a castle in Spain!

Since she’s an accomplished musician, I first asked if she felt more confident writing about music than about other artforms and she said that she did, that there were things that she could say because prose and music were the two languages she could translate between. Two languages, I wondered.

“Music is another vehicle for making people feel. It doesn’t have to be through the lyrics necessarily, but through a combination of things. Like the rhythms that we feel in our souls, that are familiar to us from birth. Different societies have different rhythms that bring both comfort and excitement. And then there is melody and the resolution of a melody versus discord. All of this you can translate into prose.”

So what are the challenges in translating music into prose?

“Trying to convey something that is felt more than said. What I concentrate on is how does the music make me feel, how does it make the reader feel, how does it make the character who is playing the music feel? If you can translate that then you don’t have to get tied up in the minutia of she strummed the chord, the bass drum did this, the keyboard did this. It’s more about what is the cause and effect of the music on the people listening to it and the people making it.”

What musical miscues take Sarah out of a story?

“It’s the same as if you’re a horse person and you’re reading about horses or a sailor reading about sailing. Most people are somewhat conversant with music. The ones that take me out are the ones that try to get too much into forcing it instead of feeling it. When people do it well, it doesn’t matter if it’s the type of music that I know.”

Sarah has created some great characters who are musicians. How much of writing about music is writing about musicians?

“Only a little bit. I mean, for me it’s fun. I like writing about musicians because it’s the classic write-what-you-know. There’s a particular thing that I know about and that’s what it’s like to be a musician on the road. I can invoke that in stories for people who haven’t experienced it. There may be some stories that I want to tell that are hidden in those spaces. But a lot of stories that I want to tell about music don’t necessarily have to do with musicians. ‘Oaken Hearts’ doesn’t. There’s room for both.”

I read Sarah a couple of passages from her marvelous Asimov’s story “Wind Will Rove,” about musicians on a starship. Here her main character is one of a group playing the old timey song the story is named for.

“Wind Will Rove” spoke to me, and my eyes closed to feel the wind the way my grandmother did, out on a cliff above the ocean. We cycled through the A part, the B part three times, four times, five. And because I’d closed my eyes, because I was in the song and not in the room, I didn’t catch Harriet’s signal for the last go-round. Everyone ended together except me. Even worse, I’d deviated. Between the bars of my unexpected solo, when my own playing stood exposed against the silence.”

I asked whether it was hard to convey the technical aspects of playing the music.

“One may be writing about music in a way that is accessible to someone who does not play music to bring them in, so that they can find points of identification even if they don’t know an A part from a B part. They do know about being the last one talking when the room goes quiet. There is writing about music and there’s writing with music, which is trying to infuse those rhythms into the sentences. Underpinning it without ever leaping over it.”

Then I read her a more lyrical and allusive passage from later in the story.

I tried to make the song sound like something more than wind. What did any of us know of wind? Nothing but words on a screen. I willed our entire ship into the new song I created. We were the wind. We were the wind and borne by the wind, transmitted. I played a ship traveling through the vacuum. I played life on the ship, footsteps on familiar streets, people, goats, frustration, movement while standing still.

How does she strike a balance between this expressive writing and more descriptive passages?

“I think it’s a thing you have to deploy. If you do too much of that, then the writing is over rich. You have to deploy it then pull back and come back into the room.”

So is writing about music like dancing about architecture?

“When you translate a story from one language to another, the one-to-one, word-for-word Google translation will necessarily be an imperfect translation. It’s going to lose every nuance, it’s going to lose idiom, it’s going to lose expression for the sake of what will maybe be clarity. Maybe the sentences will translate, but anything figurative will get lost. I think dancing about architecture is about the art of a true translator. The true translator looks at the line and says ‘I get the essence of what this is trying to say, but I may need to use a different idiom because that idiom doesn’t translate to my culture.’ You necessarily have to change it to make it better and to make it sing in another language. It’s the same thing. Sure you can dance about architecture, but there is human translation that needs to take place in order to make it work. Will it be a perfect copy? No, but it will be a thing that is interesting in itself.”

exit

When I asked Sarah about her favorite SFF music stories, I hadn’t realized that she’d recently posted a short list here <electricliterature.com/9-science-fiction-fantasy-stories-about-music>. She did mention one new pick: Theodore McCombs’s Uranians <penguinrandomhouse.com/books/720256/uranians-by-ted-mccombs>. I also put her on the spot by asking which of her own stories was her favorite.

“I don’t know that I can choose. In ‘Wind Will Rove,’ I was really proud of capturing the old-timey fiddling, and in ‘Oaken Hearts’ it was fun to write a song into a story that I’d always wanted to do, and the band stories are truest to my experience. All of them for different reasons—unable to commit!”

Fine with me. They’re all wonderful. Thanks, Sarah!

Next time more writing about music (if not dancing about architecture) from your music-loving, but non-musical columnist.

Copyright © 2024 James Patrick Kelly

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