Here’s something mildly interesting: I’m going to write about writing about music.
“What do you write about when you write about music?” Lindsay asked of us. He began the POP Montreal symposium by reading Robert Musil, passages that included such analogies as being “nailed to the walls with awe,” when describing a couple playing piano together, going from controlled to erotically loose and full of passion, completely beyond a state of physical control.
“How can you even begin to think of describing music in words?” Arto Lindsay, who’s done some stuff, pounded a double espresso and started talking. He wondered aloud what “good writing about music could be,” and that he didn’t think that music critics were failed musicians. Not all of them, anyway.
About subjective writing, he said, “You have to write about your own experience, because what else do you have? At some point, you have to write about your own feelings, but it’s not enough to write about your own feelings.” And, “…we as musicians often pretend to have feelings. It’s part of our job.”
The symposium was intimate, in that we were all sitting around in a circle of folding chairs, reading aloud works that we liked, talking about books we’d read and authors we dug, bands and performances we remembered and had been changed by.
Of modern thinking and present day discernment, Lindsay deduced that “…now we’re used to thinking in galaxies and data.”
Arto Lindsay is fucking cool.
We got into the dynamic of performer and audience, the vulnerability of artist contrasted against a vampiric crowd, or a primal performance parallel a controlling pop star, the bizarre ritual of getting onstage.
“I saw Television a million times. They were the band that inspired me to get in there and do it,” he told us. “A certain amount of immediacy is necessary to get up on the stage. I’ve worked with, and for, some super-superstars, and it’s inevitable that people’s egos will get out of control. You have to know when to come down to earth.”
Of the Youtube and social media phenomenon that has transformed our lives, our society and our artwork forever and ever, amen, Lindsay had this to say: “So many people expose everything that exposure itself loses its power.”
When we got to talking about Montreal Jazz Fest’s performance that had Lou Reed jamming with John Zorn (Zorn being someone that Lindsay has collaborated with himself), and how the executives in their VIP seats were complaining that the chairs weren’t the right shade of green while audience members demanded Reed play the two
hits they liked, and booing when he didn’t, yelling at Zorn to “play some real music,” Lindsay said, “As a musician, you have to figure out the right moment to say FUCK YOU.” And he suggested that maybe the two artists were comparable to little kids purposefully pushing the limits of what was acceptable.
“As a performer, what do you do to feel honest?” someone asked.
“You need to be powerful, in order to be vulnerable. You have to be bisexual, in order to aspire to being trisexual. There’s gotta be a rigor to your vulnerability.” And he elaborated with anecdotes about a music teacher, and his own personal disciplines.
“You don’t have to be an asshole to be a musician, but you have to give genius’s a little leeway to be assholes,” he told us.
“You have to give everyone a little leeway to be an asshole,” someone said back.
One guy piped up with how, though he hadn’t brought in anything to read, he wanted to express his appreciation for the way Kerouac had written about jazz, with such joy and childish excitement.
I wanted to say that being high as fuck on amphetamines would make a person giddy with joy for just about anything, but kept silent.
The jazz student (of course he was there, he’s always there) said that though Kerouac was supposedly writing about jazz, it wasn’t any jazz that he could understand.
Lindsay gently reminded the jazz student that Jazz School was a relatively new concept, and someone else added that he was always skeptical of any jazz writings that go off on a fervent tirade without mentioning the struggle and bloodshed that came from African American musicians, and how jazz is the music of their soul’s struggle and perseverance.
Lindsay offered up Miles Davis’ quote: “White people think that if you sing behind a beat, it’s jazz.” And then added, “Or Billy Holiday, or something like that.”
When we got into books, Lindsay brought up A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. He liked how Egan described the musicians as actual people, going into detail about their outfits; this was interesting to him because of the elaborate costumes musicians used to come up with. “And now look at us,” he said. “If [I see] someone [who is] really shlubby, they’re probably a musician.” But then he added that some musicians, even if they’re not commonly attractive, usually have an innate confidence, because “…what a musician does, they do with their body.”
And when talking about musician-written autobiographies, Lindsay laughed and said, “The musician’s books are not that illuminating about music. [But] the musician is sharing an intimacy, allowing the audience to access their own intimate feelings. But you don’t want to overvalue your own subjectivity.”
Thanks to Arto Lindsay for sharing his own intimacies with us, and thanks to POP Montreal for giving us the medium in which those intimacies could be shared.
This piece has just been the cream skimmed from the milk bucket of all the curious, speculative conversations we had. If you want to read further into what we were talking about, here are some additional books and writings to check out:
How Music Works – David Byrne
Against Soundscape – Tim Ingold
The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross
Tropical Truth – Caetano Veloso
Blutopia – Graham Lock
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon – Toure
The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West
And if you’d like to read works from some of the writers we talked about, they are the aforementioned Robert Musil, Ben Ratliff, and a bunch of others whose names I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to spell properly.