“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—the quote has been kicked around and variously attributed, but its message remains: Spare us the words, music speaks for itself. I understand that, and agree to a certain extent. Its straight-to-the-bloodstream directness is part of music’s appeal, with no critical intervention required. But as someone who loves music and does write about it, I think it is fundamentally misguided.
The key word here is “about.” What is a song—forget about the lyrics, think about the melody, the tempo, the dynamics—about? I’m reminded of the time a friend’s five-year-old daughter regaled me with elaborate details regarding the plot of Barbie in the Nutcracker—“So then Clara and the Nutcracker escape through a mouse hole and wind up in an ice cave”—and, egging her on, I asked, “Yes, you’ve told me the plot, but what is the movie really about?” She sighed, exasperated, and said, “It’s about Barbie.” In other words, as any good modernist will tell you (does anyone identify themselves that way anymore?), the thing is about itself.
The veteran critic Robert Christgau made two wise observations about the would-be disparaging quote. One is that “Writing about music is writing first”: Though inspired by another form, it rises or falls on its own terms. The second is that “dancing usually is about architecture. When bodies move in relation to a designed space, be it stage or ballroom or living room or gymnasium or agora or Congo Square, they comment on that space whether they mean to or not.” In other words, the subject also reaches beyond itself to encompass other realms, whether intentionally or not.
Pianist and composer Myra Melford makes wide-ranging, imaginative music that is about … music. On her new recording, For the Love of Fire and Water (RogueArt), she has assembled a superb group that she calls her Fire and Water Quintet—featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Susie Ibarra—to explore the sonorities and possibilities of improvised music. At the same time, the recording is the first in a multipart project inspired by the work of the artist Cy Twombly.
For Melford, part of the attraction to the artist was his process. In the compelling liner notes for the recording, compiled by Natalie Weiner, Melford notes:
I read that when Twombly was a young artist, one of the things he did to train himself was to turn out all the lights at night and draw in the dark. He was interested in what it felt like to make the line more than what it looked like, and that seemed like an apt metaphor for how I play the piano. For me, it’s all about the gesture and the energy. Of course, there’s a sound to it, but it’s almost as if the sound is the information I get after the impulse to make a gesture.
The recording consists of a ten-part suite during which the music pushes, pulls, and pulsates, following its own melodic contours down assorted avenues and alleyways. As with Twombly, the mark-making—in this case, through sound—is open and exploratory, often considering the various possible timbres of the instruments. The voices of the individual players are strong and distinctive, with each person’s physicalized gestures and sounds standing as their own idiom. The compositions, often fiery, can suddenly turn lyrical. The minimal explorations of texture in “VI” give way to cartwheeling squalls of sound in “VII,” then back to the intimate simplicity of a hand-clap-driven “VII.” Through these sometimes hairpin turns, 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 called “Gaeta Set (For the Love of Fire and Water).” Says Melford, “I was mesmerized by watching the sunlight on the water. My sense is that’s what he was drawing, the different ways that the sea and sun interact.” Learning this, my thoughts went back to a book I compiled called Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems. In many of the examples I gathered, a poem is a direct meditation on a work of art, a close observation of it often leading to broader considerations. Its title is drawn from a line by Delmore Schwartz in his poem “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine,” which spins off from the famous canvas to ask a series of simple questions of its subjects, who are arrayed near the river in various states: “What are they looking at? Is it the river? / The sunlight on the river, the summer, leisure, / Or the luxury and nothingness of consciousness.” Eventually, he concludes that, with their languorous, unfixed gazes, “They are looking at hope itself.”
The poem, then, is about the painting; it imagines a narrative based on the seeming relationships between the figures, speculating on their motivations and inner lives. But inspiration can just as easily lead to a parallel or outward-leading meditation, as in the Wallace Stevens poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” partly inspired by the Picasso painting The Old Guitarist. It considers reality itself in an elliptical fashion: “Ourselves in the tune as if in space, / Yet nothing changed, except the place / Of things as they are and only the place / As you play them, on the blue guitar.”
The distancing grows even further in the reverse, when a painter makes a work based on a poem. The painting could be a literalization as in Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, a crystalline evocation of a fire engine racing through a dark, rainy cityscape. But more likely, especially if it is an abstract piece, it is fully an entity unto itself, since a painting or sculpture without an obvious subject cannot truly be said to be about anything. Cy Twombly himself made various artworks inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, but their relationships are more attenuated: a single, swooping curve atop a marble base in an homage to the Sonnets to Orpheus, a long, marching set of swirling color formations evoking the intense spiritual questioning of The Duino Elegies.
It is in this spirit that Melford and her bandmates summon Twombly: as kin in the mark-making process, open to wherever that may lead. It may start with the landscape, or with the instrument, but it is illuminated by a commitment to the ways by which perception becomes form. There is also a special kind of ambition connected to it, implicitly stating that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it or won’t succeed at it. What this music is about, then, may start with Twombly, but it doesn’t end there. It doubles back, trying to make sense of things while questioning the very nature of sound and composition. It is about a basic set of elements, ceaselessly rearranged. It is about freedom and focus, being immersed in various traditions, yet being willing to set those aside for a journey to a new place, a journey into the unknown.