Thursday, April 30, 2009

It is unclear who first said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, but the culprit might wish they had a penny whenever the phrase was used. In the opening sentence of Dark Mirror: The pathology of the singer-songwriter, Donald Brackett ascribes the wisecrack to Elvis Costello, who added in a 1983 Musician magazine interview: “it’s a really stupid thing to want to do”. But Costello himself tentatively attributes it to the comedian Martin Mull. Other contenders include Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Schopenhauer, Yoko Ono, Steve Martin and Laurie Anderson; in fact, anyone you like.
What is clear, however, is that the quotation is overused, practically meaningless, and makes for a disheartening first line. It’s not hard to see why it gained currency both among artists (a glib bon mot at the critics’ expense) and critics (a licence to abdicate responsibility), but as Alex Ross, the author of The Rest Is Noise (2008), asks: “Why is music more difficult to write about than any other art form?”.
TLS 4/9/09 Wesley Stace
My stylistic heroes were such as Macaulay (of the paragraph-length sentences) and Carlyle ( "O sea-green incorruptible!", but this from Rees-Mogg is right on.

When I was a teenager, I found myself caught up in the styles of two of the greatest prose writers of English literature, Francis Bacon and Edward Gibbon. Bacon's influence was benign; Gibbon's style can be a quicksand for beginners. Written by Gibbon himself, his Latinised style has a symphonic classicism - he really is the English Cicero. At 14 I did not have the ear to be anybody's Cicero. Under the influence of Gibbon, my essays resembled the tragedy of the R101 - the British airship that crashed in France because its engines were too heavy and it had too little gas in its bags. The craft did not have enough lift.
After reading Bacon, my sentences became more pithy, if somewhat staccato. Their brevity made them easier to read. I still operate on a rule that when one is having some difficulty with a sentence, the best thing to do is to cut it in half.
One would have to be a very clumsy writer to find oneself in trouble with a sentence of less than a dozen words. It is his short sentences that make Jonathan Swift so lucid to read.
William Rees-Mogg Times 4/15/09