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Marie-Helene Bertino Headshot

Dancing About Architecture

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Once upon a time I was a music writer for "The Deli," an indie magazine in New York City. Every week, my fellow music writers and I gathered at The Cake Shop on the Lower East Side to receive our story assignments and cds for review. We spent the rest of the time trying to out-obscure one another. Do you know this German band that only plays once a year during an eclipse? They're brilliant. Do you know The Basement Tapes? Not the Dylan Basement tapes, but the ones an Alaskan goat herder made in his basement? They're much better than that German band. There was no deep cut I could mention that someone couldn't take deeper. I arrived to one meeting excited about securing Shins tickets, which I mistakenly told another writer. Her nose wrinkled. "Don't you know The Comas?" she said. "They're much better than The Shins."

I thought of this a few years later when I enrolled in a Fiction M.F.A. program. During our first class, our professor asked a seemingly innocuous question, Which authors do you like to read? There was a feeling in the room akin to the sharpening of knives. One by one we answered, trying to out-obscure one another. Ulysses! Foucault in the original French! A short story writer I invented whose masterwork is written on the doors of public mailboxes!

This is one of the many similarities between music and writing I found when I wrote my recent novel, 2 a.m. at The Cat's Pajamas: the tendency of the fledging to show off, and the counter tendency of the veteran artist to not give a shit about showing off. I gave this sentiment to Lorca, the self-defeating owner of a fictional jazz club "The Cat's Pajamas." No one who actually has chops brags about it. Observations like this compose the chorus of the story that follows a 9-year-old jazz prodigy throughout 24 fateful hours in Philadelphia.

Just as musicians listen for exact rhythms in sound, writers must look for exact rhythms on the page. What they form these rhythms with are for the former notes, the latter words, but both kinds of artists must develop an ear. The more either one listens to themselves, the more original and mind-blowing these rhythms become.

Think about the descending line in Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry About A Thing," which I do more than is probably healthy. The progression of the instruments and layered harmonies over the lyric "When you get off your trip" is so perfect it can make your jaw ache. Where other singer/songwriters would see an easy cap to the end of an expression, Stevie Wonder saw a place to linger, develop, and play.

I tell my writing students to be exacting and unrelenting when choosing adjectives. Calling a woman's hair "brunette," isn't as evocative as calling a woman's hair "important," à la Don DeLillo in White Noise.

Effectively observing the world often requires the writer to stand at a distance, normally in some small, brick apartment, the only company the lonesome whistle of her teakettle. And, that's the good news! This could be compared to solo acts like Jeff Buckley, Lana Del Ray, Patti Smith, Eminem, Stevie Wonder. Unlike the members of Led Zeppelin, or Arcade Fire, or The WuTang Clan, or Fun, when Bob Dylan takes the stage he is, essentially, alone. How like a writer! (P.S. Have you ever heard of Dances? They're much better than Fun.)

Perhaps to stave off this lonesomeness on stage, solo musicians have their backing bands. Neko Case has her boyfriends, Neil Young has his Crazy Horses, Bob Dylan has his Band. In the early'00s, I saw Bright Eyes more times than I can count and each time he had on stage no fewer than ten musicians. A writer has her backing band, too: my small dog is my Robbie Robertson, my cat my Levon Helms, scratching herself/keeping time on a throw pillow.

Acknowledgement is essential in both fields. When the "event" of an album or novel is launched into the world, the musician or writer must remember their "backing bands" in their acknowledgements. It is essential to remember who sat in with you while you became who you are. It took me two weeks to write the acknowledgements section of my book, and I still fret over who I overlooked.

There is a tendency to be scared of the part of oneself that is able to blow one's mind so far out. Drugs and alcohol crop up regularly in the biographies of music and writing greats. In the world of jazz, Hampton Hawes let heroin control his life for many years, even after being warned by a fellow addict and visionary, Billie Holiday. Philadelphia lore recalls that John Coltrane spent a lot of miserable, addicted time in the city, but he conceived "A Love Supreme." The list of writers whose excesses have been well documented would exceed my word limit. Remember that vantage point I talked about? When you reach the top, the view is unparalleled but you are very often alone. Drink 'em if you got 'em.

When musicians write about their lives, the results are always interesting. Patti Smith's Just Kids, Hampton Hawes' Raise Up Off Me, and Questlove's Mo' Meta Blues, just to name a few, offer valuable glimpses into the oftentimes wild lives of gigging musicians, and I used all three as references.

When writers attempt to convey music on the page, things get hairy. To write about music attempts to clarify a feeling that has the tendency to diminish upon articulation. Too often a writer is tempted to describe the feeling, which can read as dull. "It made her feel alive." Boring. Describing the actual sound of the music can also produce boring results, unless you find a new way to do it. How do you represent the thrill of a horn bursting out of a song on the page? "Burp, burp, burp" doesn't do it, does it? What about saying, "The trumpet sounded like a woman saying: come here?" Closer, maybe.

I knew in the early stages of writing that I wasn't interested in writing about people who listen to music, I was interested in writing about people who make it. I took guitar lessons and consulted many gigging musicians and the people who love them. Most of what they told me was surprising, the way life can be. The daughter of avant-garde jazz teacher Dennis Sandole in Philadelphia, for example, told me that though her father and his friends were brilliant masters of the form, the upholstery of the roof of his battered, old car was always busted, falling on his head as he drove.

I "sampled" priceless details like this in my novel. However, writing about music remains, well, hard.

Is it even worth trying?

The bespectacled legend Elvis Costello said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's a stupid thing to want to do." It can be a challenge to capture the ambiguous magic of music without reverting to cheap imitation, noir-ish drama, or clichés. Maybe that's what Elvis Costello was getting at, or Martin Mull, to whom the joke was later attributed.

Let's agree that nothing will ever be able to effectively convey how it must have felt to hear Nina Simone live at The Village Gate, or to experience the concussion of sound move through the floor at an LCD Soundsystem show, or to have attended Nirvana Unplugged, etc... Hearing music live will always take first place as the quickest, best rush. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't write about it. If we don't, we'll be missing out on conveying one of the best things in life. We'll be left with literary subjects like baloney sandwiches, conversations about who last paid the heating bill, and boxes of paper clips. While in my opinion an inspired writer could make any of these topics compelling -- I also think the same of a dance piece about architecture -- I wouldn't want to live in a world where any topic is off limits.

Sonny, the jaded, fading jazz guitarist in my novel, says this about Philadelphia: "There are only two kinds of people in this city -- those who know each other, and those who haven't figured out yet how they know each other." The same can be said for the worlds of music and writing. Everyone has sat in with one another, read with one another, or knows someone who has. Elvis Costello is more affiliated than maybe he even thinks. Consider this: once upon another time, my friend Shawn was the front desk receptionist of "The Supper Club" in Midtown Manhattan. This was a dance ballroom of the days of yore. One day, Elvis Costello came to visit. Shawn, flummoxed, stammered that she thought he was "the cat's pajamas." He was touched. Shawn is now a successful jazz singer. Elvis is still a legend. And, the phrase "The Cat's Pajamas" went on to comprise 3/4 of the title of my debut novel, in which I write about music. Maybe writing it was a stupid thing to want to do. If Elvis Costello ever reads it, I hope he'll let me know (gently), musician to writer.