The Two Claudes, or: What’s Wrong with Dancing About Architecture?
Many people are fond of quoting Elvis Costello’s line, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Every time I hear that quote — usually delivered with a satisfied look and without attribution — I have the same thought: What’s wrong with dancing about architecture?
What, in other words, is wrong with attempting to overcome the supposed limits of one medium to share one’s appreciation of another — or to evoke a mood or experience, even if, especially if, that mood or experience is not typically associated with one’s mode of expression?
I had that thought this past week, when my wife and I vacationed in Chicago. The novel I started reading on the trip was Body & Soul, by Frank Conroy (best-known for his classic memoir, Stop-Time); it was my wife’s suggestion, and I’m very glad I took it. The novel, from 1993, is a very involving coming-of-age tale about Claude Rawlings, a musical prodigy, and it has beautiful stretches of — horrors — writing about music, such as:
“Fredericks straightened his back, lifted his chin, and played the same piece. . . . It seemed at first too soft, and Claude wondered if this was some instructive trick, but then, very quickly, as the lines flowed, he heard the exquisite control with which Fredericks released the music into the air. It was eerie. The piano seemed to disappear and somehow the lines themselves filled the boy’s consciousness, the architecture of the music lucid in every small detail, the whole statement sealed, floating, and folding into itself, and into silence. Claude ached at the beauty of it. He wanted to leave his body and go chase the music into whatever hyperspace had swallowed it. Fredericks turned his head and the boy stared into his eyes, motionless, breathless, as if staring could somehow bring the music back.”
While in Chicago we visited the Art Institute, where we saw the work of another Claude: Monet. Check these out:
There are many things I find amazing about these paintings, one of which is Monet’s ability to convey — in as static a medium as paint — the gentle movement of water. Good thing Elvis wasn’t around to tell him not to try it.