Affinity & Ambiguity: Writing & Music
April 5, 2021

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
—James Baldwin

My affinity for language is a given. But how it was given — and revealed more than other affinities that may have had it out for me as well — is a mystery I’m trying to solve. My hunch is that an affinity for words was present at birth, then snapped-to early on by seductive teachers who assigned adventure narratives and lyric poems, and later the stories of Stephen Crane, the novels of Thomas Hardy, the poetry of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay (her marquee name was a poem in itself). The tenderly implied coupling in the woods that Tess endured with Alec D’Urberville unfolded so shadily that I had no idea she was being forced against her will, otherwise I would have crawled into the novel and run the rapist off in the midst of the act. At such moments, this affinity for the book manifested itself — a transcendent sense that prose and poetry recognized me as its completion, that I was felt by the writing, meaning that without my moral participation literature was meaningless.

But that wasn’t the well-bottom of my artistic predilection. The inner beacon that called me to be a reader and eventually a writer was also calling me to play music. The entwining of writing and music commingles linear sense and sounded shape, to me, nothing surprising. Which is to say there’s an overlap, an equivalency, and a separation with which these two similarly spirited and self-assertive arts run together in my blood. My artistic sensibility was tuned to language; but some rapacious gnome within, also stirred in childhood, kept using music to mystify and impugn my word-bent and its stays, the rebel cause to desacralize my confidence, my expressive facility, my destiny (even in an essay like this).

After all, on the music road, at the age of eight, I first heard a Methodist church choir, and I badgered my mother to go for a tryout, which I did and got in; at fourteen, because I saw Benny Goodman swing with a quartet on TV, I took up the clarinet and went right into the junior high band; in high school, I was a self-taught guitarist, songwriter, and leader of a Dylanesque folk-rock group; at thirty-three, I earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition, my senior thesis, a knockoff of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel”; finally, on the strength of a performance art-piece for pianist, electronics, and theater, “Kandinsky’s ‘Several Circles,’ ” I entered the Ph.D. program in avant-garde composition at the University of California, San Diego. Along the journey, my synchronous affinities for writing and music developed concurrently, journal writer and piano student, hand-in-hand, double fallbacks, fraternal twins.

I say my affinities were synchronous but I had no idea how well-tuned until one summer, struggling with Bachian two-part counterpoint at music school, I was asked by the Santa Fe New Mexican, the daily newspaper in the town where I lived, to review — it was a tryout of sorts — an orchestra concert, to be held in Los Alamos, the Atomic City on the hill, an hour away. A student orchestra would perform, cobbled together from college-age musicians attending the nearby four-week New Mexico Music Festival at Taos.

First on the program was an early symphony of Mozart, an easy work composed around age 12, not that it was any less musical because of his youth, but it was playable. Forty players with twenty-five strings and the rest winds, brass, and percussion comprised the student orchestra. Though instrumentally proficient, most would, under a constricted rehearsal schedule, be hard-pressed to jell as a group. As I remember, I had already heard the Music Festival conductor. He was a young, angry, Pattonesque disciplinarian who batoned a la Toscanini, pushing the troop with unmuted calls of “Come on!”, a swaggerer, sword-fighting his way across a drawbridge. That might be de rigueur for New York professionals, but not for scholarship kids whose bowing and embouchures were likely to shake under his command.

I even tried to send my jittery grievance to the conductor telepathically: Just start over

Before the piece began, I felt the moment’s serendipity. I had been studying orchestration, reading scores, and learning to conduct. Years of ear training, transcribing records, and an innate sense of meter and syncopation had primed me for the nuances of any classical work, whether I’d heard it or not. I brimmed with surety, my little spiral notebook at the ready, my pen uncapped. Not only would I be paid, but maybe I could snare a steady gig writing concert reviews in the opera-and-chamber-music mecca of Santa Fe. I also hoped my evaluative vocabulary and my writerly phrasing would illuminate the many shades of a live performance.

My instructions were clear: to write and turn in the review in twenty-four hours for Monday’s paper. (I’d type it and place it in an 8 ½ x 11 manila envelope and drop it at the front desk on Marcy Street, Sunday evening. After it appeared, in about a week, I picked up a check for $25.)

When the orchestra began, I sensed something was off. The symphonic sound and the visual tableaux of players and conductor, which typically merges seamlessly from the stage, suddenly cleaved in two: There was the music itself, Mozart’s jaunty opening allegro, and there was the real-time attempt the orchestra was making to play it. Neither conductor and first violinists nor score and execution were in sync. There was a lag as if the violin section, marching in a military parade, had slipped a step behind but kept going, ghost-sawing to an offbeat all their own.

As the allegro gained steam, the lag gapped, not a lot, but enough to stir panic. Whoa, Nelly! Let’s begin again! I jotted down. I wanted to intercede, stand up and shout: Stop before it’s too late! I even tried to send my jittery grievance to the conductor telepathically: Just start over. I wondered whether he was having the same jitters I was.


It may be that my agitation was ray-beamed to the conductor. Soon, he was hurrying, flailing in frustration, whipping his baton at them as if to land blows. The stagger-step first violins kept trying to catch up; the conductor beat on. Now, the music called for a crescendo, and the conductor widened and intensified his wand aggression, telling them graphically to get louder and hold the pulse. The orchestra got louder: The conductor gestured for more volume by raising his cupped and trembling left hand higher and higher. They followed the command. But the pulse was still slipping away, in micro-intervals, and the performed music edged away from the written score, which the conductor held to, both hands on the wheel. The pulse of the players fell a half-second behind the conductor’s beat. And it was these clashing pulses, with neither side giving in, that caused me to turn away — eye and ear. (As I extend here the literary problem of music meeting explanatory prose, my trying to sculpt the right words requires a slower descriptive pace that fails to embody the spurting cracks in the dam of this performance.)

In these teeter-totter moments, I heard the thrust of the music drag, and the word sluggish came out of my pen and onto the pad. The clean arpeggios of one four-bar crescendo, I imagined clearly marked in the score, were frayed, listlessly attacked.

Stop!

(Note: How curious that many of us can hear the music of what is there and the music of what is not there. What’s more, what word would I have used had the crescendo sounded right? I might have said the orchestra’s crescendi, taken together, were sharply laddered and pulse-popping perfect. Could I notice other fine crescendi when there were too many passages in which they weren’t fine? One annoyingly necessary aspect of critical listening results in subtracting what’s played from the perfection of what’s written.)

That word sluggish got underlined in my notebook.

Assessing how musicians play a score, classical-music-speaking, is the only question of live performance. Such as well compels the critic who’s hoping to capture the next day’s readers. How spirited, how dull, how spryly, how sluggishly — how I, the evening’s soothsayer, at least, in writing, must exemplify those “hows.” At that moment, it struck me, like a man seeing a dog fighting for its life in a swollen river. No assessing its weakness, no praying for its strength. I had to leap in and save the animal from the churning water, dead set on taking the performance under. Perhaps my authorial attentiveness might throw a life preserver to the sinking canine.

(Another note: Then, I was writing the review as I heard the music, and I wrote the review that night and the next morning. Now, I’m writing and reviewing both what I remember of the concert and what I remember of my critique. It’s a bit mystical, the link memory bridges between then and now. As I type, my auditory brain is activating or feeling the imprint of the orchestral sounds that fomented the words of the review, which I was writing in my head that August night in that smug lecture hall so long ago. I’m reiterating this to get it right, not yet make it true. The words — then and now — emanated from the sounds themselves, a kind of synesthesia. For me, this dual affinity is a mix of beckoning beloved substances, a quid pro quo, if you will — words troop out of my mind as rhythms and sounds and musical phrases haunt my words and verbal phrases.)

Metaphors helped readers follow a rhetorically vivid review, attending less the concert they missed in Los Alamos and more the concert I heard for them

Mid-first-movement, I reached another numinous moment. The orchestra’s performance of the allegro’s reprised theme was precisely as I had described it: just as sluggish as before. (Had they learned nothing?) They were handmaids to the very fate I’d assigned them in language. They weren’t catching up to the conductor, but they were catching up to my judgment as to how they dawdled behind him. Odd how what I was writing in my head and showing up in my notebook was also what I was hearing.

And on it went, another sound-word amalgam came through me, and another, and another. I wrote down a bevy of words and phrases, descriptors, and interjections until a grand metaphor presented itself. This galumphing gallop of a Mozart allegro was now a horse race. The orchestra, taken together, kept rushing, plungingly, to keep up with the conductor, their horse a half-length behind his. Until, right on time, the leader reached the finish line before the rest did, not an efficacious outcome. What a relief when the death-march baton-man got to the barn first and those arriving a second later could, though humiliated, defeated, at least, canter, slow down, and breathe.

Metaphors (like a horse race) helped. Helped me translate the music into an image. Helped with the mystery of how sound needs illustrating via another sense to better shape the mystery of its live being. Metaphors helped readers follow a rhetorically vivid review, attending less the concert they missed in Los Alamos and more the concert I heard for them. That was a haloed discovery for me. Indeed, the newspaper audience, I would learn, trusted me to settle any internal qualm I might have had about writing about the music and the orchestra’s playing it as the condition of my finishing the review and the paper’s commitment to publishing it.

What happened in the other movements of “easy Mozart”? I don’t remember, though I do remember the parts I was conflicted about. What about the two or three other works the student orchestra must have played that night? I don’t remember those, either. Apparently, I didn’t catalog the selections then. Only now, however, is this spiraling out because I’m thinking it through as I write. Were the other performances worse, better? Better perhaps because they’d got with the conductor’s Sturm und Drang? And wouldn’t I have judged the whole program in my review, more or less, a totality? So how could I, considering the evening’s music, do anything more than selectively summarize and highlight patterns of adequate and less adequate, remembering that truly inspired playing is rare for which the reason is obvious, a community grief or a virtuosic soloist?

Finally, didn’t the audience applaud nicely, supportively, albeit tepidly, and, in the end, didn’t I disregard the effect that applause had on anyone in favor of my singularly well-told, responsibly executed, and self-possessed critique?


My review came out on Monday. Friends responded. One said too bad the orchestra played so poorly; you said it was the players’ fault. Could it have been the conductor’s as well? Maybe both? I hadn’t addressed the conductor’s role and, instead, chastised the players, those foals lopping along behind him. But I began to consider my friend’s critique. Maybe the problem lay with General Patton; his blitzkrieg was punishing, not constructive. Maybe ordering greenhorns into battle even with “easy Mozart” backfired; they lost their drive or that drive was taken from them, and, consequently, they sabotaged the mission. Maybe they played poorly as a protest, on purpose.

Who among the paper’s readers even assessed the assessor? Few, if any, probably.

Yes, I hadn’t addressed his conducting. Come to think of it, I should have got after him. He should have adapted to the group’s instability or seen how they were working against him. (Didn’t I tell him as much in my telepathic complaint?) He should have regrouped so the first fiddles, the melody carriers, might have caught up to him as well as the rest of the orchestra and the score. He should have either stopped and started over or just slowed his beat, which, I began to see, accounted for their sluggishness.

I should have reviewed his musicianship, which failed the orchestra he was put in charge of leading.

Then and since then, in discussions I have had with music critics and readers, my sense that language’s role as a descriptive and an assessing operation began to change. It changed not only because of what I wrote then (the first of hundreds of music reviews I’ve done) but also because what I wrote and what the newspaper printed was, despite the factuality of its publication, not exactly the “truth”: the “truth” of any concert is open to interpretation, within reason, and, more often than not, to revision. To anyone who hears live music, some kind of assessment is always in play, handmaids to players’ abilities. And, weirdly, this revision need not come solely from concert attendees (a hundred or so, if that). No. My readers, Santa Feans who didn’t attend, found fault with my review—indirectly, I presumed. It was inadequate, missing broader and fairer points, my reportage itself sluggish, itself a few beats off a more judicious pace. That night’s reportage was over and done with but it wasn’t complete. Not only could it never be complete but it was more severely flawed by the myth that since I’d written it, it must have been the truth.

Who among the paper’s readers even assessed the assessor? Few, if any, probably. And it led — another oddity I should examine — to my being granted a kingly throne over local live performances because I was soon the newspaper’s only music critic, who no one, not in one letter to the editor, ever questioned.

In the same way, the orchestra’s rendering of Mozart’s music was hardly a faithful rendering of his score, so, too, was my review of the concert performance nearly as unfaithful to the appraisal I should have written, I could have written, I wished I had written but can do nothing now to change. The sole clarity I can filter from this long lingering haze is that there was — there is always — a truer review and a truer reviewer than what emerges. My sharper antennae, nudging the more sensitive and less crafty doppelganger within, would surface only years later, tens of thousands of words of criticism down the road. I still wish, though, I had the humility that night in Los Alamos to realize my wiser twin was not missing but in-training.

It’s as if the absence of the words one needs to describe what music is saying speaks as loudly as the words speak.

That night, I didn’t know the degree to which I lacked the critic’s writerly acumen. But now I think I can describe what might comprise that acumen. When writing about music the affinities between these two arts are as consequential as are the ambiguities. Indeed, it’s in the ambiguities where the critic’s assessment of a performance must listen to the inner twins that hear and write simultaneously. The musician hears more than he can possibly say in words, though there’s nothing but words to convey the sensation. It’s as if the absence of the words one needs to describe what music is saying speaks as loudly as the words speak. Ultimately, it’s trust in a divided yet conciliatory self who is trying to employ, honestly and well, the musical uncertainties of his judgments, more commingled than conclusive, even with a midnight deadline at his heels.

It’s close to what Leonard Bernstein meant when he said, “Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?” And yet, one of the beauties of music is that we can love it and argue with it and be baffled by it with words — while adding to it the mystery of language. After all, the histrionic Bernstein lectured, wrote books, sat for interviews, held concerts for young people — all while explaining the beauty of music.

Figuring out that the thing words do for music is not a musical problem. It’s an aesthetic one, which adds more ambiguity, not less. Good ears and smart criticism trail the music like a bloodhound, howling out the moving location of its prey, but more often, baying about its own doubt and inconsistency.


Photo by Jamal Yahya from Pexels

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