Writing About Dancing About Architecture About Music About Writing

In praise of imperfect translations from one medium to the next

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The phrase is often employed in an effort to deflate the very act of writing about music. Who exactly first uttered it remains unclear. Some point to Frank Zappa, others to Laurie Anderson, and others still to Elvis Costello. The latter option is especially meta because it aligns so well with David Lee Roth’s deflation of Costello’s own music-critical reputation: “Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”

Rob Walker, who looks even less like Elvis Costello than I do, digs into the subject at his designobserver.com blog, and rightly summarizes the key deficiency in the “dancing about architecture” slight. The notion of it being a slight is a matter of perception. The whole idea of “dancing about architecture” is, as he puts it, “fairly awesome.”

He digs further into this deficiency by taking issue with a telling comment from a piece, published earlier this year, in the Telegraph:

Writing about music has a serious built-in problem, which is that the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.
The Telegraph story was written by a classical pianist, Jonathan Bliss, on the occasion of his first ebook publication, a Kindle Single titled Beethoven’s Shadow. It’s a kind of musical memoir, a study by Bliss of his involvement in Beethoven’s music.

Walker, a friend since my New Orleans days, dissects that above sentence thusly:

Okay, this is the problem. An attempt to describe architecture via dance does seem obtuse; so does choosing dance as a medium to express the three-out-of-five stars or thumbs-up-thumbs-down version of “criticism.”But “writing about”something, music included, can obviously mean something beyond description paired with a judgment rendered. (In fact, even “criticism”ought to mean a lot more than that.) So I reject the restrictions that the above definition implies.
I was going to take some polite issue with the “obtuse” matter, but Rob shortly thereafter kind of did so himself, when he introduced, in a subsequent post, the concept of “ekphrasis” to the discussion — it’s the Greek term for a dramatic description of a work of art. The term is useful in various ways, in particular by making clear a long history for cross-medium interaction if not downright cross-pollination, and especially for a literary tradition.

It also brings to mind another Greek term essential to the consideration of borders between mediums: Laocoön (pictured below), the mythological figure from which Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (in his landmark Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) derived his stricture that the arts, like the muses from which they borrowed their names, are distinct from each other. It’s a formidable text, but my interest in synaesthesia, the mixing of the senses, pretty much precludes me from fully agreeing with it. (As does my interest in comics. From a literary perspective, Lessing’s Laocoon can be read as a sort of a formalist version of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent.)

But mostly, the sheer Greek-ness of ekphrasis reminds us of that modern mythological figure: Iannis Xenakis, the Greek genius who was equally accomplished in music and architecture. The clear parallels — geometric, aesthetic, philosophical — between his work in both fields evidence the extent to which ideas move back and forth between them. Lessing may have written the book on the perceived distinction between art forms, but it was his countryman, the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, born a few years before Lessing died (and, it is worth pointing out, a contemporary of Beethoven), who contributed a significant correction by famously describing architecture as “frozen music.” To look at Xenakis’ scores and at his buildings is to observe forms take similar shape. (At the top of this post are, side by side, Xenakis’ score “Metastasis” from 1954, and a photo of the Philips Pavilion from 1958, which Xenakis designed while working for Le Corbusier.) It’s arguable that Xenakis worked back and forth between music and architecture in pursuit of some elusive singular goal, each alternating effort akin to lifting one foot after the other on his way up a ladder.

Now, back to the Telegraph story by pianist Jonathan Bliss that Walker quoted above. There’s an interesting moment in the Telegraph piece that reveals some of Bliss’ thinking. It occurs in a sentence that happens to immediately follow the one Walker quotes. It goes like this:

This is so extraordinarily difficult because to write effectively you need to be direct, clear and specific, whereas the glory of music lies in its abstraction ”“ its nearly infinite malleability according to the listener’s psychological state ”“ and if you don’t embrace that, you are sure to miss its essence.
What’s worth focusing on is Bliss’ sense of what he terms “abstraction.” Certainly there is an element of abstraction in music, but I’d push back on Bliss’ comment a little. Much perceived “abstraction” is still in pursuit of something; there’s often what musicians refer to as an “idea” at the heart of the compositional activity. To write about a work of music can be a parallel matter of pursuing those ideas. One might not, as a result, express the ideas in abstract terms, but like Xenakis on his way up the proverbial ladder I have depicted, the ideas remain the goal — arguably a willfully elusive goal — in both situations. Indeed, such writing may not “convey” the “emotional experience,” as Bliss puts it, but it may bring its own pleasures to the pursuit.

10 thoughts on “Writing About Dancing About Architecture About Music About Writing

  1. This is a nicely developed argument, Marc. Ekphrasis is particularly applicable to the Instagr/am/bient project. So, how might we summarise your position – ‘writing about music is like writing about architecture’ or ‘writing about music is like making music about writing’?

  2. I basically think that creation of artworks is kind of translation. Translating a piece of music into words is also creative act. That’s your art. By the way, I think many choreographers are interested in architecture. William Forthsyth’s method is about dancing about architecture. Rudolf von Laban was an architect before he became a choreographer.

    1. Thanks, Yasuo. Thanks for the additional choreography information.

      Indeed, I had seen Wim Wenders’ Pina documentary around the time I first read Rob Walker’s articles, and the geographic and architectural setting of some of those pieces was on my mind.

  3. Yasuo makes a good point – ‘[x]-ing about [y]’ is a kind of translation. I’d like to elaborate on this point by putting forward a distinction between two kinds of translation.

    In his book ‘Information Theory and Esthetic Perception’ (1966), Abraham Moles distinguishes between semantic and aesthetic information. Moles says that semantic information can be translated whereas aesthetic information cannot, because semantic information depends on a shared symbolic language whereas aesthetic information is restricted to the private knowledge between the individual and the work of art. This idea relates to the philosophical concept of qualia, although Moles doesn’t mention it himself. ‘Redness’ is a common example of a quale and is also an example of aesthetic information. It is impossible to explain the quality of ‘redness’ to someone who has never seen red, which is to say that the experience of seeing red (aesthetic information) cannot be translated into words (semantic information). With this terminology, we can say that practices such as data sonification are ‘translation’ in the other direction, from semantic information to aesthetic, which Moles apparently never considered. Ekphrasis too may be described in these terms: it appears to include the translation of both aesthetic and semantic information to varying degrees, depending on the types of artwork and media involved.

    The point is that any ‘translation’ from one aesthetic medium to another is ultimately arbitrary, meaning that the resulting translation depends more on the translator than that which is translated. Psychological studies of synaesthesia also support this position – for example, there is no evidence of universal correspondences between perceptions of colour and sound. It also implies that if there appears to be a correspondence between artworks in different media (e.g. the music and architecture of Xenakis), then it is often to be found in our perception and consciousness rather than the formal properties of the works in question.

    The implication of this disctinction between aesthetic and semantic information is that we can reconsider the original statement concerning ‘writing about music’: It suggests that writing is primarily semantic, whereas music, dancing and architecture are primarily aesthetic. On these terms, writing about music (translation from aesthetic to semantic) is not like dancing about architecture (aesthetic to aesthetic).

    1. Very helpful, thanks. In recent years, I think I’ve come to prod this proposed divide between semantic and aesthetic . I’ve been exploring the perceived-semantic aspects of perceived-aesthetic realms. This is the impetus of my exploration of graphic scores, in which perceived-aesthetic devices (non-traditional scores consisting of visuals as simple as, in the work of Christian Marclay, simply a series of photographs) are interpreted by musicians. And it is, even more, the impetus of my sound “response record” projects, in which I get musicians to respond-in-sound to something that might, otherwise, receive a written response — i.e., the way Despite the Downturn replied-in-sound to Megan McArdle’s piece in the Atlantic, and the way Lowlands: A Sigh Collective responded to that piece in the Telegraph about the winner of the Turner.

      The thing I may want to understand more is what the embedded-semantic matters of perceived-aethetic projects mean to Moles’ distinction as depicted here. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of degrees.

  4. I think that presuming that music, architecture, dancing and writing are all completely separate disciplines, with hard borders between them is a very Modernist idea. Those barriers have been shown to be porous often enough that I find it hard to believe that anyone takes such a phrase seriously anymore.

  5. Taking an analytic approach, let’s assume the experience of reading does include emotional states, as does the experience of other art forms – such as music. To the extent that we can know the emotions of others (or even the time-lagged emotions of ourselves), there seems to be overlap between people – there is a degree of homogeneity in response to the ‘art stimulus’. People often like similar works and describe their responses in similar terms.
    Following this, one can ask to what extent the emotions (or more broadly, ‘states’) ‘induced’ through experiencing art works overlap; ie are all possible art forms capable of inducing the same range and depth of states. If we assume there is overlap then with respect to the writing/dancing analogy it would seem that writing most probably can induce a state in the reader that approximates the experience of listening to the music, at least for some of the states that music can induce. So writing becomes a useful way of transmitting experience – not perfect, but useful.

    But assuming there is no overlap – that all art forms induce utterly disparate states in and between their audiences – what then can writing about music achieve? By assumption it cannot convey anything like the experience of listening to music, but it can convey what that experience was like to someone else. For example if someone writes “Listening to Brittney Spears made me happy” then it is unlikely that we will feel happy upon reading that. But on the face of it we can assume they mean what they say and that listening to Brittney Spears makes them happy. Now if we have read work by that person before and found that we too were made happy (or whatever) by similar listening experiences – our responses to music seem to be similar to theirs – then that person’s account of their listening experience becomes a reliable indicator about the world. We can use their accounts to plan and act toward controlling our own experiences. Writing then becomes a reliable indicator(or predictor) of possible states in ourselves. So, again, writing about music is useful, which should come as no surprise as people have found writing about music useful and interesting for many years and in many places.

  6. Great post Marc. I’ve recently been introduced to cognitive scientist Aniruddh Patel’s Shared Syntactic Integration Resource Hypothesis, which might have some interesting implications for thinking about synaesthesia and semantic/aesthetic distinctions.

    Patel developed the hypothesis in an attempt to solve an apparent contradiction: neuroimaging evidence seemed to show activation of brain areas associated with language while listening to music, yet neuropsychological theories and evidence from brain-damaged patients seemed to suggest that the cognition of language and music involved completely separate cognitive mechanisms. The SSIRH states that although syntactical integrations performed during the cognition of language and music involve different syntactic representations in each case (i.e. the syntax of language is different in kind from the syntax of music), the same processing resources are used to facilitate both kinds of integration. So instead of music being a non-verbal subclass of language, or at the other extreme being completely unrelated to it, what the SSIRH proposes is that although the experience of listening to music is different from the experience of listening to language, the ways in which the brain operates to process those two experiences bear a clear resemblance to one other. Experimental evidence has since provided substantial support for the hypothesis.

    I guess this doesn’t really say anything that those familiar with interdisciplinary practice have known intuitively for a long time, but it’s nonetheless interesting to come across a compelling ‘scientific’ account of it, although as far as I know Patel doesn’t really say whether his hypothesis applies to other forms of sensory input, or even to other aspects of music and language beyond syntactic integration.

  7. re the underlying neuroscience and writing about music – here is the abstract of an article that is consistent with other current thought on synaesthesia being at the extreme of the normal distribution of qualities rather than pathologic. What is interesting here (and elsewhere) is the idea that imagination of another’s experience can trigger perception similar to the actual experience of the other person. To be honest I think this is common knowledge and commonly acted upon – hence my slightly tongue in cheek (overblown) response above.

    Mirror-sensory synaesthesia: Exploring ‘shared’ sensory experiences as synaesthesia – Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 645–657 “Recent research suggests the observation or imagination of somatosensory stimulation in another (e.g., touch or pain) can induce a similar somatosensory experience in oneself. Some researchers have presented this experience as a type of synaesthesia, whereas others consider it an extreme experience of an otherwise normal perception. Here, we present an argument that these descriptions are not mutually exclusive. They may describe the extreme version of the normal process of understanding somatosensation in others. It becomes synaesthesia, however, when this process results in a conscious experience comparable to the observed person’s state. We describe these experiences as ‘mirror-sensory synaesthesia’; a type of synaesthesia identified by its distinct social component where the induced synaesthetic experience is a similar sensory experience to that perceived in another person. Through the operationalisation of this intriguing experience as synaesthesia, existing neurobiological models of synaesthesia can be used as a framework to explore how mechanisms may act upon social cognitive processes to produce conscious experiences similar to another person’s observed state.”

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