“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – the quote has been thrown about and attributed in various ways, but its message remains: spare us the words, the music speaks for itself. I understand that and I agree to some extent. Its direct directionality is part of the music’s appeal, with no critical intervention required. But as someone who loves music and writes about it, I think that’s fundamentally wrong.
The key word here is “about”. What is a song – forget the lyrics, think about the melody, the tempo, the dynamics -? It reminds me of the time a friend’s five-year-old daughter regaled me with elaborate details regarding the plot of Barbie in the Nutcracker– “So Clara and the Nutcracker escape through a mousehole and end up in an ice cave” – and, encouraging her, I asked: “Yes, you told me the plot, but what is the film in reality? onShe sighed, exasperated, and said, “That’s about Barbie.” In other words, as any good modernist will tell you (does anyone identify more that way?), the thing revolves around itself.
Veteran critic Robert Christgau made two wise observations on the potentially derogatory quote. The first is that “Writing about music is first writing”: although inspired by another form, it rises or falls according to its own terms. The second is that “dance is generally about architecture. As bodies move relative to a designed space, be it a stage, ballroom, lounge, gymnasium, agora, or Congo Square, they comment on that space, whether they want to or not. In other words, the subject also goes beyond itself to encompass other areas, intentionally or not.
Pianist and composer Myra Melford creates varied and imaginative music that speaks of…music. On his new recording, For the love of fire and water (RogueArt), she has assembled a superb band she calls her Fire and Water Quintet – featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid and percussionist Susie Ibarra – to explore the sounds and possibilities of improvised music. At the same time, the recording is the first of a multi-part project inspired by the work of artist Cy Twombly.
For Melford, part of the attraction for the artist was his process. In the recording’s compelling liner notes, compiled by Natalie Weiner, Melford notes:
I read that when Twombly was a young artist, one of the things he did for practice was to turn off all the lights at night and draw in the dark. He was interested in what it felt like to do the line more than what it looked like, and that seemed like an apt metaphor for the way I play the piano. For me, it’s all about gesture and energy. Sure, there’s a sound, but it’s almost as if the sound is the information I get after the impulse to make a move.
The recording consists of a ten-part suite in which the music pushes, pulls and pulses, following its own melodic contours along assorted avenues and alleys. As with Twombly, the creation of marks – in this case, through sound – is open and exploratory, often considering the different possible timbres of instruments. Individual player voices are loud and distinctive, with each person’s materialized gestures and sounds constituting their own idiom. The compositions, often fiery, can suddenly turn lyrical. Minimal explorations of texture in “VI” give way to free-wheeling sonic bursts in “VII”, then return to the intimate simplicity of a hand-operated “VII”. Through these sometimes hairpin bends, the compositions insist on multiple perspectives and possibilities.
Another source of inspiration for Melford was the town of Gaeta, on the Mediterranean coast south of Rome, where Twombly lived for many years, and where he made the series of drawings titled “Gaeta Set (For Love fire and water). Says Melford, “I was mesmerized watching the sunlight on the water. I feel like that’s what he was drawing, the different ways the sea and the sun interact.” Learning this, my thoughts returned to a book I compiled called Sunlight on the River: Poems on Paintings, Paintings on Poems. In many examples I have collected, a poem is a direct meditation on a work of art, close observation of it often leading to larger considerations. Its title is taken from a verse by Delmore Schwartz in his poem “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”, which stands out from the famous canvas to pose a series of simple questions to its subjects, arranged near the river in various states: “What are they looking at? Is it the river? / Sunlight on the river, summer, leisure, / Or the luxury and nothingness of consciousness. Finally, he concludes that with their languorous, unfixed gazes, “they are looking at hope itself”.
The poem, then, speaks of painting; he imagines a narrative based on the apparent relationships between the characters, speculating on their motivations and inner lives. But inspiration can just as easily lead to a parallel or outward-facing meditation, as in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” partly inspired by Picasso’s painting. The old guitarist. She considers reality itself elliptically: “Ourselves in air as in space, / Yet nothing has changed except the place / Things as they are and only the place / As you play them, on the blue guitar.
The distance increases further in the opposite direction, when a painter creates a work from a poem. Painting could be a literalization as with Charles Demuth I saw the number 5 in gold, a crystal-clear evocation of a fire truck driving through a dark, rainy cityscape. But more likely, especially if it’s an abstract piece, it’s an entity on its own, because a painting or sculpture without an obvious subject can’t really speak of anything. Cy Twombly himself produced various works inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, but their relationship is more attenuated: a single plunging curve on a marble plinth in homage to the Sonnets to Orpheusa long set of swirling color formations evoking the intense spiritual questioning of Duino’s Elegies.
It is in this spirit that Melford and his comrades convene Twombly: as parents in the process of creating brands, open to whatever may lead. It may begin with the landscape or the instrument, but it is informed by a commitment to the ways in which perception becomes form. There’s also a particular kind of ambition tied to it, implicitly stating that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it or that you won’t succeed. The subject of this music can therefore begin with Twombly, but it does not end there. He goes back, trying to make sense of things while questioning the very nature of sound and composition. It is a set of basic elements, constantly reworked. It’s about freedom and focus, about being immersed in various traditions, yet being willing to put them aside for a journey to a new place, a journey into the unknown.