Bridging the Inexpressible: On Music Writing
March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments
Joe Bonomo interviews Aaron Gilbreath:
For a long time I’ve admired Aaron Gilbreath’s essays and journalism, and his generosity and commitment to fellow writers. Having encountered his work over the years in Harper’s, The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Believer, Oxford American and other places, I’m amped to read his book of essays Everything We Don’t Know, coming out later this year. His terrific new collection This Is: Essays on Jazz explores jazz music and artists with affection and deep curiosity. I was happy to virtually sit down with Aaron and ask him some questions about the book and the possibilities and limits of writing about music.
Joe Bonomo: Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” That works for me, from blues, country, and rock and roll to jazz and classical. Do you agree? If so, as a music writer how do you bridge the inexpressible and the expressible? I guess a more interesting question is, Can you?
Aaron Gilbreath: What a great quote. I agree. Granted, I only have vague ideas about how writers bridge the inexpressible and expressible, but that is what we’re all trying to do all the time when describing sensations and feelings and exploring our interior worlds. One of Huxley’s implications is: words have limitations. Sound and images do, too. But each medium also has unique capabilities to offer, so maybe combined, the joint project of human expression can get us over that bridge.
In another sense, maybe not all we consider inexpressible is. If we can hear and feel something in music, then it’s expressed. That means it’s not inexpressible so much as unspeakable, beyond words but not sound. Who knows? I love this existential, edge-of-our-knowledge stuff, but maybe I’m not saying anything that cuts to the heart of your question. What lies beyond the beyond is fascinating and part of me likes it there. Like an essay, we can’t expect too much clarity in certain realms of human inquiry, only the opportunity to think and talk through them. I’d rather have music transmitting powerful signals in one channel while something inexpressible still lingers out there, partly concealed.
More practically, part of bridging the inexpressible and expressible involves trying to describe sound. When you write about music, readers and editors often want to know how the music sounds, what the musicians’ styles are like. Of course, you want readers to hear the music. It’s the writers’ job to provide the sensory cues necessary for people to experience it, but that’s a tough job. It’s hard describing the intangible! If you can’t get at the primary qualities of sensation with specific adjectives and phrases, then you end up leaning on comparisons: X sounds like Y; A tastes like what B would sound like if B and C had a baby. Comparisons provide guideposts since known entities conjure sensations already familiar to readers. Describe Japanese bonito fish as a smoky, briny flavor that’s meaty and carries a deeply satisfying umami and people might scratch their heads. But say bonito’s “the bacon of the sea” and people go, Oh, that makes sense. To me, sound itself verges on inexpressible. Many writers nail it. Michael Patterniti could write about anything. Ellen Willis describes it time and again. I find it challenging.
JB: In your introduction to This Is, you write, “Music isn’t a thing, some abstraction separate from the human condition. It is the human condition, and I, as a reader, writer and listener, live for the narratives of achievement, heartbreak, success, failure, struggle, disappearance, cult status, determination, emotion and innovation, music’s lifeblood and our shared existence.” Beyond providing biography and cultural and historical context, can essaying an artist’s life also tell the story of music expression itself?
AG: Part of what I mean is that music is one of the few things beyond physiology that unites all people across cultures. Another part is that we live music. We don’t just listen to it. Music defines aspects of our lives. Just as Joan Didion said that we tell stories in order to live, certain albums define particular periods of time. Certain songs bring back certain feelings, remind of us people. For musicians, it is literally their condition, because they’ve built their lives around creating and playing it, and they suffer and thrive for it. The related question is why we listen to music at all.
Can essaying an artist’s life also tell the story of musical expression itself? I think it can. If music and silence express the inexpressible, then maybe the narratives of musicians’ lives can help portray and explain the complex relationship humans have with music. To me, the question isn’t just about why musicians do what they do. It’s: why do we human beings make and listen to music? What is it about this thing with sound and beats and rhythm that attracts us? This invisible force that elicits such strong physical and emotional responses in our bodies that nearly all of us ─ across the range of humanity and history (certain religions aside) ─ willingly places it in our lives? To me, Oliver Sacks tackles that in his book Musicophilia as scientifically and intelligently as anyone has, exploring the physiological response it produces in us. But the question remains unanswered. We’re a musical species. We don’t fully understand why, but we are. And essaying about musicians is one way we can try to make sense of ourselves, our relationship to music, and the drive to express the inexpressible. Music-making is one of the enduring central projects of human existence throughout time. Telling stories helps us make sense of why.
JB: Is there a piece of music or a musician you’ve tried to write about but haven’t found a way in (or out)? If so, why do you think that happened?
AG: Well, I tried to write about one of the Velvet Underground’s best live recordings (a 1967 soundboard tape from The Gymnasium in NYC) when it was still a legendary bootleg that the band hadn’t officially released, but John Cale wouldn’t return my emails, and Moe Tucker wouldn’t answer her phone! I don’t blame them. They’re probably inundated with strangers’ requests.
As for jazz, definitely, but I’ll keep it general. For a narrative writer, the tendency is to find the drama. Literature needs conflict, and jazz musicians’ lives are filled with it, from racism to drug use to financial problems, strained business relations and strained family relations, self-doubt and the frustrations of courting success. A story needs trouble, but the problem becomes one of focus: when does that trouble overshadow the rest of your “character’s” lives and skew the portrait? Conflict can tilt the frame, and as a writer of nonfiction, I don’t want to be unfair. I want my stories to be compelling reading that’s intellectually stimulating and more insightful than tawdry, but always accurate and reliable. When it comes to musicians like Ernie Henry, Frank Rosolino, Freddie Redd, Lorraine Geller and Vince Guaraldi, you have heroin overdose, obscurity, heart failure, murder-suicide and questions of squandered talent. In terms of scenes, you also have a flashpoint, a dramatic moment that maybe you want to lead an essay with, not just for titillating effect, but because that moment changed the character’s life. Maybe it ended it. That moment’s important. But you want perspective, and if you lead with the heroin overdose or the bankruptcy, you have a strong hook to grab readers, but maybe you run the risk of suggesting that that’s what readers should most know about them, or risk creating a dark first impression that’s hard for them to see past. Leading with that can oversell the tragedy’s importance. Why focus on the tragic end of a musician’s life or downside when the bulk of their life was so gloriously creative and productive that people are still talking about them half a century later? Then again, a dramatic scene is often just a compelling way in to the bigger story and bigger themes ─ that’s how narrative works. So that’s what stumps me a lot: how to write a seductive narrative while remaining accurate and fair, and focusing the readers’ eyes on different points of the musicians’ lives to represent their full humanity.
When I’m stumped, I table a musician’s story until I can polish my grimy lens enough to see the bigger picture or best way in. Sometimes so much time passes that it seems I’ve given up entirely, in which case maybe another writer will come along and write that story. But your unconscious often keeps hammering away when the rest of you has moved on, silently laboring there under the surface of your thoughts, and trying to make sense of things and find that pattern or perspective that clicks.
JB: What challenged or surprised you as you assembled a clutch of essays into a cohesive book? Was there a strategy in choosing the musicians you write about?
AG: Cohesion is often lacking in my favorite essay collections. They’re collections in the literal sense: pieces written independently of each other with only the individual essays in mind and then later gathered between covers. Even though This Is is about jazz, that’s how it came about.
This book resulted by accumulating interest. I just found myself listening to a lot of jazz during a time in my life; it seemed to reflect my nervous system or something. Listening got me reading, which led to obsessively writing about jazz. So I didn’t choose the musicians willingly. I followed my musical tastes and found questions that arose from their lives or work. In Val Speak, my strategy is whatever. While listening to Miles Davis I thought Ooh, that’s interesting, and started making notes. When I was reading about Lee Morgan, sources kept mentioning his “tragic end on stage,” but then when I went to find more info about it, no definitive piece existed. So I tried to write it. When I stopped to look at what I’d been writing for months on end, I realized a clutch had gathered, and I went with it. The world contains so many fascinating things that I knew my attention would eventually shift from jazz to something else, even as part of it held on to the other previously fascinating things.
The more practical challenge was putting the essays in order, and overcoming the self-doubt that this small collection even amounted to a book. When does a pile of stories cross that divide? I don’t know what the tipping point is, but when you’re publishing a book yourself with no one else’s money, you can say “Okay, it’s done now” and move on.
As for surprises: I’d be surprised if many people read it!
JB: Who are your favorite music writers? Why?
AG: Ellen Willis, hands down. As a writer, I envy everything about her mind and style. As a reader, she’s a magnetic guide because she’s a curious person who writes about music, rather than a music writer, so her pieces involve cultural criticism, politics and gender, and weave the experiential with the analytical. Her narrative voice is that of a smart welcoming friend: argumentative, funny, approachable, even at its most intellectual, and ready to lead you somewhere you might not otherwise go.
For an awesome mix of the personal and critical, people should read Jessica Hopper’s book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. It’s formally diverse, full of style, relatable and still surprising. I love Nick Hornby’s music writing, both his fun breezy book 31 Songs and High Fidelity. Gerald Early’s One Nation Under a Groove, about Motown, takes a day to read and will linger for ages. Robert Gordon’s Stax Records book was one of the best music biographies I’ve read, so I can’t wait to read the next book he writes.
For jazz, I love old New Yorker writer William Balliett and love Stanley Crouch ─ brilliant, contentious, challenging, singular. Pianist Hampton Hawes’ memoir Raise Up off Me is one of the best jazz stories you’ll ever hear straight from the musician’s mouth, same way Art Taylor’s interviews are in his collected Notes & Tones. And even though Luc Sante’s not a music writer, his Believer piece “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” is masterful music writing. James Baldwin’s 1965 short story “Sonny’s Blues” is essential reading for anyone, and I dig Ralph Ellison’s essays “The Charlie Christian Story” and “On Bird, Bird Watching, and Jazz.” Also, Sam Stephen’s huge photo book The Jazz Loft Project is one of a kind. That’s the short answer.
Joe Bonomo’s books include This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays), AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School and appears online at No Such Thing As Was and at @BonomoJoe.