The joy of good writing

Having lived around academia for so many years, I’ve had to read many technically specialist books and articles, not only on experimental music, but on most aspects of musicology. And to be honest, that reading is more often than not a chore rather than a joy. Much analytical literature is written only for those devotees of the analytical system used (Schenker, Forte, Perle). Musicology has suffered from the application of critical theory to subjects, often with no particular understanding how critical theory works. In my readings, I can dig down through the jargon only to find that the whole argument either crumbles to meaningless dust, or else it is just plain wrong. Even if the author manages to write clearly about the subject, the writing may well be just pretty dull, or even patently bad.

What fires me up are the good writers who present their subject with clarity and grace; the writers who present their history as a real page-turner; the analytical or philosophical writers who write about their search for details as if they were writing a detective story. Or the writers who are so clear that it is simple to follow their logic and to see their proofs, even if the logic and proofs themselves need much thought. And (this is not always possible) the writers who are able to reach not only specialists, but also interested amateurs. And sometimes the best writing does not happen in peer-review publications; it can happen on blogs.

Here’s a great example of fine writing:  James Pritchett’s continuing series of short blog entries on Morton Feldman’s 1981 piano piece Triadic memories. Pritchett employs analytical and philosophical rigour with a great read. As the index, or ‘landing pad’ for the three posts thus far states, Pritchett is interested in looking at Triadic memories at local levels: “The series has no overarching structure, but instead takes up individual moments, images, and questions about the piece and follows them where they lead.” It is here:

Students of the aesthetics and utility of music notation will especially like his first post, on the way that Feldman’s published scores in manuscript tell us more about the music than typeset versions: It’s something I’ve seen in all sorts of music for some years. Having been told by a pianist many years ago that he didn’t play music in manuscript, I thought, well then you’re really missing the music. Typeset versions can suffer from errors, of course, but in the case of Feldman’s music (like much postwar experimental music), it’s the layout that provides the musician with insight into the space, control — the “breath” — of the piece being played.

The second post examines a practical feature of Feldman’s manuscript spacing and the actual durations of the notes as written — Pritchett uses sound files to demonstrate the difference between his “accurate” performance of a section of Triadic memories and the “Feldman-approved” version by Aki Takahashi, which she had developed under Feldman’s supervision. If you find the time to read it, do so, as it’s fun.

However, Pritchett shared his third post on this subject, today— — which is the reason I began musing on good writing. Good writing not only explains the point that is to be made, it also draws us into the world it inhabits. I like the pace of Pritchett’s prose, his word use, and the way he presents an analysis as both a philosophical meditation and investigative narrative. He begins with one small event: a two-sound chordal grace note figure. This figure is significant to Pritchett as a listener: “it is a signal that something is changing.”

Pritchett moves out from this event to the passage six minutes before, then outward farther into memory, into the experience and limitations of listening to music in real time, of what follows, and how the figure affects him as a listener when it reappears. Prichett uses metaphor and similes (“like a ghost whose name has been spoken”), but this refers aptly and only to the music and his experience as an experienced listener.

I won’t go on; it’s much better to read these posts on Triadic memories for yourself. Pritchett illustrates this post with clear musical examples, accompanied by relevant sound files, so that I think that anyone, regardless of musical literacy, could follow him. Although Pritchett is subjective, he never makes the story about himself. He focuses on Feldman and, by extension, on the way we listen to music of such concentration.

Author: Virginia

Virginia Anderson is a writer who messes with the EMC Blog. She specialises in the study of experimental, minimalist, and free improvisatory music. She also plays clarinet, and has recorded on Zanja, Advance, and Rastascan Recordings, specialising in new works for Eb clarinet and free improvisation.

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