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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Music and Writing

"Some writers are curiously unmusical. I don’t get it. I don’t get them. For me, music is essential. I always have music on when I’m doing well. Writing and music are two different mediums, but musical phrases can give you sentences that you didn’t think you ever had."

I quoted the late Barry Hannah's words in a post on February 22 of this year, and last Sunday's NY Times contains an article by Oregon writer Aaron Gilbreath which presents a specific example.  Gilbreath explains how he learned concision and economy of style from listening to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis' music from his middle period.  Like most post-WWII jazz musicians, Davis was heavily influenced by the great saxophonist Charlie Parker, but by the late 1950's he had transitioned to a leaner style that "rather than squeezing as many notes and changes into solos as possible, Davis dispensed with clutter and ornamentation and pared his mode of expression down to one defined as much by the notes and phrases he played as by the silences left between them."

Gilbreath goes on to give samples of writing which reflects a similar economy but an economy of words rather than musical notes.  He believes this brevity strengthens the writing by  implying rather than stating directly, thus inviting the reader to speculate which tightens the bond between author and reader.  I'm not familiar with the authors he cites, Abigail Thomas and Tony Earley, but the passages quoted are certainly sparse yet powerful.

He contrasts these minimalists with what he calls maximalists like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, and says that he thinks young readers are particularly drawn to their "flamboyant displays" of prose.  The thought reminded me of the long ago advice of an English professor I mentioned in this blog on July 27, 2011.  This professor recommended reading Thomas Wolfe when we were young because otherwise we wouldn't read him at all.  At the time I thought this was a reference to Wolfe's (who died young) self-centered, arrogant yet vulnerable young protagonists and their point of view, but now I think I think the professor may have meant the extravagance of Wolfe's writing style.  I've sometimes thought that if I tried reading Wolfe again I'd get bogged down by the repetition of his lyrical passages and be thinking, "ok, ok, get on with it."

Gilbreath is dead on in his descriptions of the music of Miles Davis, and I too prefer his style of the late 50's and early 60's as demonstrated on the classic album Kind of Blue which should be issued to every American high school student.  It would strengthen and enrich us as a country if this were done.

 For further reading go here.

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