We Got Rhythm: Words and Music at Year Zero

One of my oldest harping on topics (see the mini-article “the music of language” at the bottom of this post, that came from a comment well over a year ago when I was a newbie) is the closeness of music and words.

When I launched Songs from the Other Side of the Wall back in October last year, I made the decision that the launch do would be a mix of music and words. So I got in touch with one of my very favourite musicians, the sensational folk-blues singer-songwriter Jessie Grace, who put on a fantastic set. In the months since then, Year Zero gigs have all been words and music, and the cross-pollination both of culture and of fanbases has been a huge success – and the mix has made the events feel like real experiences to remember.

We’ve worked with several amazing musicians and bands: To The Moon, InLight, Nikki Loy, Kevin Jenkins, last night we had the incredible Christi Warner, but I get drawn back again and again to Jessie – in part because her sound – there’s a sleazy, Alison Mosshart feel that raises her music way above the usual singer plus guitar.

I’ve also talked a lot about the similarities between indie music and indie writing (often being put right by Marc, who actually knows the music business from the inside :)).

All of which is a prelude  to saying those of you who were at that initial event, or at Rough Trade, will have spotted that Jessie comes with film crew, and that this week the fruits of that filming were released, in the form of the two part documentary by Sarah Townsend you’ll find embedded in this post. The documentary follows Jessie over a few months in 2009-10, and is a really intriguing insight into the struggle of the independent musician. The similarities between musician and writer come out again and again. The other things that shine through are the qualities that make Jessie so good – persistence, professionalism, bloodymindedness, and a get the hell on and do it approach.

Oh, and at 2 minutes into the first part, and towards the end of the second, you’ll find a significant amnount of footage from the Albion Beatnik and Rough Trade gigs.

So this post serves three purposes – to give a hugely deserved shout out to a genuine Year Zero idol, Jessie Grace, who not only has an amazing album out, Asleep on the Good Foot, but also features on the fab Radiohead celebration album Round the Bends, and can be found every month with her band at Oxford’s uber-cool Baby Simpl on Cowley Road; to spark a discussion on the similarities and differences of the indie music and literary scenes; and to get people thinking about the ways in which the crafts of writing and music can feed off each other. To which last end:

The Music of Language

A fellow writer had said:

“Repetition and echos can be a powerful tool if used conciously and occasionally.”

And then posed the question “Is the following sentence overwritten? ‘Burnishing the sky blood red, the orange glowing sunset hung over the dark western forest of the smoldering city .'”

My response wasYes – let me say why I think it doesn’t work, though (other than the fact I’m not 100% sure it makes as much sense – if something’s orange how come when it burnishes something that something ends up red? Forest of a city – a metaphor too far? The metaphor’s confused, but assuming it wasn’t, the problems are:

1. too many participles – nowt much is actually happening (the sunset hung being about it), which adds stodge.

2. I know it’s unfashionable, but I love beautifully written sentences even if they are overwritten – but a beautiful sentence has a rhythm – it slides off the tongue (kinda the opposite of pitjhy dialogue that you chew up and spit out). Why this doesn’t do that is you have three bits – sky blood red”, “orange glowing sunset” “dark western forest” that are all constructed in essentially the same way – so there’s no development. What you need is best described like music – you either have to have rhythm – with ups and downs, quicks and slows, or cadenzas, where you move slowly and very calculatedly up or down the scale of (over)writing, or sometimes an arpeggio (sorry if this is patronising – that’s a chord, only where you play the notes that make it up separately), where you take a big word (by which I mean an important noun not a long word)and tease it out by delivering a series of complimentary fragments (somewhat like a haiku). Let me make a fool of myself by offering to rewrite the sentence in these 3 ways:

a. The sunset hung above the smoking city, burnishing the sky with its blood-red glow. Here the emphasis is entirely on how the words come off the tongue – “above” works where “over” doesn’t, for example, because the stress is on the second syllable not the first. You can’t have a qualifier for “sky” because for the rhythm to sound right to our ears, it has to go with “glow” and leave a pause with “sky”, had to replace “smoldering” with “smoking”, because only a 2 syllable word works there and so on.

b. The sunset hung over the smoldering city, its orange glow burnishing the sky blood red. We start simple (no adjectives), then build to the most impactful bit of the sentence (blood red) – the progressive descriptions now serve a purpose.

c. The city smoldered, an oil-black forest under a bloody sky, burnished in the sunset’s orange glow. I’ve changed what words refer to what because I like the idea of the buildings black but glistening (like blood does in moonlight), but what I’ve done is: present what’s happening (“the city smoldered”), give a metaphor – “oil-black forest under a bloody sky” – then echo the metaphor in non-metaphoric terms (OK burnished’s kind of a metaphor becsue normally you’d burnish metal not buildings, but…).

That probably sounds really anal, and none of the sentences is any cop (partly because I think you need to “overwrite” very selectively and only to further the plot,and I don’t think a sunset does that for me unless we’re in a prophecy situation – “you will die when the sy turns red” say), but that’s how I’d approach it. And yes, I really do go through that kind of thought process and deconstruction of rhythm with every sentence I write – I might try getting a life instead.

3. Repetition works best when it reinforces, builds, goes somewhere – music again – it’s like the theme you vary then return to -this kinda says the same thing a few times.

~ by yearzerowriters on March 25, 2010.

13 Responses to “We Got Rhythm: Words and Music at Year Zero”

  1. I’m in two minds about what you say about rhythm. Certainly in the shorter proseform, as we tend to post on YZ, you can sustain a great rhythmic discipline. Within the longer form of a novel, I’m less certain. Having said that, I recently got an apologetic rejection for a review of my novel, because the author felt it was a tone poem and not something he felt qulaified to critique. I was both flattered and baffled.

    I think it all depends on the voice of the book. If you’re writing what I call a more conversational voice, where your character addresses the reader quite openly and directly (and in all probability, but not exclusively in the 1st person), then rhythm is important. It buttresses the communication between reader and author, seeing as the author isn’t present so unless described in the text, there is little of the usual support cues of inflection, gesture and expression. However, if the novel is less ‘chatty’, but say more descriptive, I think it’s far harder to maintain a rigorous attention to rhythm, because as in the original sun example, the author wants to give priority to the layers of metaphor. I think it almost comes down to internal (rhythm v.important) or external (rhythm less so).

    I honestly don’t think there’s enough variations within what you can do with rhythm to space it out in the course of a novel. Therefore you will be looping back on yourself at points rhythm wise and inevitably the reader will have become immune to the particular technique you use by the third, fourth or fifth time, so they ain’t getting the benefit of your careful attention to rhythmic detail.

    • Wow – being called a tone poem is quite a thing – I think “flattered and baffled” sums it up perfectly!!

      And yes, I agree about novels – it could be just too much – but if done well (and not purple-ishly) rhythm is a way to highlight sections – maybe, I must say I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to playing. Of course what one person calls “looping back” another calls “leitmotif” – like I say I don’t know the answer – it’s not something I’ve tried yet – but I know I want to. And I agree about 1st person – I started writing first person because I felt it flowed more – same with present tense, and that this had something to do with the way the words sounded. You may be right about the reason why.

  2. I agree used sapringly throughout a novel, it won’t lose its effect. But then you have to ask yourself why are you using it spasmodically? What is the justification to use it in some places and not others, other than as a stylistic flourish – even if it enhances the delivery of meaning at that point in the text, you have to ask what about the text that precedes and follows it that has no such flourish? I just don’t know the answer to that.

    • that’s the joy of experimentation. To find out what’s possible – the real thing is to be prepared to spend the time producing a whole novel that might have to go in the bin and not worry about it – embracing failure. It’s probably not 99.9% of people’s cup of tea, but I think that’s the way to find out.

      • I guess I work differently to you. I sit with a project stewing and seething in my head for 6 months before launching in where momentum is the key to getting it down. That’s not to say it emerges all of a piece fully formed, far from it. And I always tweak the words, cos that’s my highest artistic value. But it’s not really the experimentation that I glean you’re talking in terms of.


        • No, it is – I’m talking about the kind of experiment that will take six months to a year – at the end of which all you may have learned is that it doesn’t work. Which is rather scary, but on the other hand quite possibly essential

  3. I love Jessie.

    You know, I use repetition a hell of a lot.
    It’s not conscious, but it comes out that way.

  4. What an enlightening perspective and I’m so glad you used examples rather than a flat explanation to support your thesis. Because for the most part I am a better conversational writer than a descriptive one, the rhythm I hope to achieve is in the dialogue-interactions so that it flows like a conversation you would hear and not cringe. What seems to work (for the time being) for me is to stay way the hell away from flowery descriptions of scenes and rather stick to a flatter, literal portrayal, since I’m moving away from traditional 3rd person narration where the opportunity for lingering literary masturbation is just out of place. I admire the hell out of writers who have the talent to use words so artfully.


    • yeah, when it comes to actually writing in a real story, like you I feel like I’m on solid ground aslong as I can get my characters to keep talking, but the moment they shut their mouths, it’s as though a rug’s taken away and I’m not quite sure what to do – I mean , I know the theory but it never seems to work.

  5. The weird thing is my characters do express themselves in flowery, linguistic metaphors, but it’s still in the conversational style because it’s stream of cosnciousness, rather than descriptive observation.

    marc nash

  6. I like a book with rhythm. I get more attached to it quicker than if it didn’t. Of course, you don’t expect it to flow all the way through, but the dialogue parts especially do well with this approach, I think.
    I watched these tubes. They bring back great memories. I still remember one of those songs. I was actually surprised that I did. What an excellent musician Jesse is.

  7. […] words and music working together, and that’s something I haven’t changed my mind about (see this post for more detail). In fact, the more arts that can come together and overlap, and talk and create together the […]

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