The first question to ask about the relationship between music and writing now is: what’s the difference? For example, hasn’t Bob Dylan been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature two years running now? And didn’t Patti Smith get the National Book Award in 2010? And aren’t they both musicians? The torrent of books by musicians in the last few years (Elvis Costello’s memoir being the most recent example) is a potent example that the boundaries between the media under scrutiny here can be porous.
It runs the other way, too, though. Literature can be very musical; it can be nearly indistinguishable from music. It’s obviously the case with poetry, that there is music happening, like in, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
It’s musical because it has rhythm, it has melody, and because it has repetition and improvisation, and it’s musical because it first consisted of an epic poet intoning it beside a campfire, while someone plucked a lyre.
Why would all these people continue to play music when they are busy, more importantly, depressing the keys on their word processors? In part because playing music actually has something important to tell us about how to listen, and in part because playing music requires us to listen to others, and to modulate what we do in an ensemble setting. When we return to writing after playing, we do a much better job remembering that literature, in fact, is a medium made out of sounds, just as music is.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Interestingly, many writers these days also have some background in music too. Short story writer Lydia Davis is an amateur pianist, and so was Samuel Beckett, he of the great novels and plays. And a lot of contemporary writers can play a little bit. George Saunders, as it has often been noted, is a wonderful guitar player. Darrin Straus can play guitar, too (I have seen him do it!), James Wood is a talented drummer, David Gates can play almost all stringed instruments, Sam Lipsyte was a singer in a band, as was Jonathan Lethem, and Bradford Morrow trained first in jazz. And so on!
That’s right. Though you are looking at these words on a page and reading them silently according to a style adduced by some monks long ago, there was a time in which literature happened out loud. People read out loud! Which suggests that the aural register of literature, the register in which writing is musical, is an important part of how literature does its trick.
Which is why, in my thirties, when most of my dreams of rock and roll greatness were long past, I picked up an instrument I didn’t know how to play (the guitar) and started playing it, and basically willed myself back into songwriting, first alone, but later with other musicians, after which I even began, a little bit, to sing. Because it got me out of the house, and it got me listening to others, which in turn, made me better at my job. It has never mattered much, with these goals in my mind, that I was never a very good guitar player because it’s the attempt that counts. I always thought of what I did as a writer, then and now, as being particularly related to what I was trying to do as a musician, not very much different at all, and playing music again proved the hypothesis.
In the indie songwriting world, there’s a vogue for cross-pollinating with writers and writing: Josh Ritter published a novel, John Darnielle published a novel, Joe Pernice published a novel, Kristin Hersh has now published two books, and Wesley Stace is on his fourth. Stace also has his very successful Cabinet of Wonders concert series in which writers routinely get to perform alongside musicians and comedians (I have done it myself a few times). Maybe constructing narratives in the long form helps them with the songwriting, too, with how to think about how character and point of view can work in a lyric.
Which is to say that it’s likely that these two forms—literature and song—may be one form, one creative endeavor, even though we try to think otherwise sometimes. Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt and Joni Mitchell are like Mary Oliver and Amy Hempel and Don DeLillo and Nathaniel Mackey and Mary Gaitskill. These are two forms that are alike in the way that sculpture and architecture are alike. Music and literature are the forms where you use your ears and your mouth. Or so it seems to me, twelve books in. I just open my mouth and sing.
Featured photo: James_onthe_rocks/Twenty20