As part of my work with Sound and Music and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), we’ve been running as series of on-line events during lockdown on the pedagogies of composing, details of which are here. Doing these, one of the things that I have been thinking about a lot is the way in which people use the word ‘writing’ to mean composing. This has troubled me for a while, so in this blog I am bringing some of my troubling into the open, as it were.
I appreciate I may be being oversensitive, but in the wake of black lives matter, I think it behoves us all to think about what we may be doing that could be, albeit inadvertently, racist. Nate Holder’s blog has some powerful materials on it that give pause for thought. With regard to ‘writing’ music, this usage has long troubled me, as I think what it is doing is making ‘writing music’ important. And what written music looks like is a staff with a clef, a key and time signature, and so on. Never mind that most of the world’s music doesn’t do this, music, to be worthwhile, has to be done in ‘writing’.
Now this use of ‘writing’ reminds me of an article by Ian Stronach, “This space is not yet blank”, which is about as hardcore a postmodern piece of academic writing as it’s possible to get, and certainly not for the fainthearted, or those with an allergy to PoMo articles! Anyway, bear with me…in his complex, but also very playful piece, Stronach says this:
Catching words with words is the name of the game, and we are on their trail hoping to catch them out, or in. So think the ritual of writing, riting’s passage, as a writual of riting as I will have gingerly picked my way, tensely, across this page, step-by-step, leaving word-prints here and there.
Eh? I hear you say! What? Has Fautley finally lost the plot, has lockdown got to him? No! What I take from Stronach that is relevant to my long term worries about writing=composing, is that ‘writual of riting’ wherein ‘we’ (and as I keep saying, whoever ‘we’ are?) use ‘writing’ without thinking (or thoughtlessly, if you like), to mean composing. Which immediately rules out vast swathes of musics as being not written, but ritual, and therefore not worthy of a western classical gaze. To use writing as composing is to conjure up images of a solitary genius, starving in a Paris garret in about 1880, and struggling alone. Or maybe of a modern tech-savvy composer, in their shed in the back garden, or whatever. The writing is riting and the ritual is writual. And ‘we’ who talk about writing when we mean composing are complicit in this. The use of ‘writing’ conveys where we place value.
Sure, when a 14-year-old singer-songwriter says “I’ve written a song” what they often mean is that they have written some words, lyrics, the writing is an aide-memoire. The music is often unwritten, or at least un-crotcheted, it may be a few chord symbols, or some tab, that’s fine. Is a song valid only as sheet music? Why don’t CDs, from hip-hop to Mendelssohn, come with a score as well as the text if it’s that important?
When our colleagues in the art department have a student who has produced a good painting, do we say “I don’t want to see the picture, show me the essay they’ve written about it”?
Why am I banging on about this? Because, for me, it’s a short step from writing = composing, to writing = knowledge of ‘theory of music’, and this takes us to western classical music’s nice cosy comfort zone. Beware of sitting comfortably!
Does this all matter, why do I worry about a word? Because words have baggage, and these days that’s an issue. If ‘we’ (warning as above) use words without thinking about the hidden meanings we can show what we think, and what we value. I value kids making music. I value the doing, the cooperative, the active. I want more children and young people to experience the frisson of live performance, the gratification of hearing something that you brought into being that no-one else has ever done before, is that such a bad thing? If we then say “nice song, but the 7th doesn’t resolve properly, and the voice-leading is rubbish” are we encouraging? English and French may share the same alphabet, but the grammar is different, should we judge Baudelaire by the textual rules of Wordsworth? Stormzy by Mozart? Where is the writual?
So I am worrying about writing to mean composing, and it does make me uncomfortable. And I’ve just ‘written’ a blog about it. Maybe a writ needs enforcing to prevent me?
Sorry, I’ll go back to my beer now…..