Friday, November 15, 2013

Drinking about Music

Truly great wine is indescribable.  It has to be experienced.  This makes someone writing about wine’s job very difficult.  The approach most people take is to rattle off a list of all the flavors and aromas they detect (black currant, river stone, cat-pee, etc.) and describe the structural elements of the wine (body, weight, length, etc.).  It’s a necessary evil in writing—it’s useful in pointing out a wine’s “quirks”—but it can never give the reader a true impression of the wine.

I happen to like a lot of wines that could be described as “quirky.”  I hesitate to use the word “quirky” because it sounds a bit diminutive, but in my mind a wine can be grand and majestic and still be “quirky.”  These are wines that have novel characteristics, and they are easier to describe. Tasting notes are much more impactful when the notes of a wine are unique and exotic.  Poulsard comes to mind: a red wine that can display dried cranberry, blood orange, roses, and brine. Sounds pretty interesting right?

But how do you describe a wine whose characteristics aren’t necessarily that interesting, at least on paper?  A wine that is classic rather than surprising.  I ran into this problem in my attempt to describe this wine:

2010 Gerard Duplessis Chablis Premier Cru, Montee De Tonnerre

This is one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted but if I were to read off my tasting notes—citrus, seashells, minerality, brine, flowers—it would sound like textbook Chablis and tell you nothing about how special it is. Instead, its uniqueness has something to do with the way all these elements come together; the harmony of the wine, the energy and vibrancy of it.  How the wine feels like a living thing, and how it changes over time—how the wine makes you feel.  But that all sounds vague and fluffy and does an equally bad job of describing the wine as the Chablis laundry list I wrote before. 

I have the same issue with music journalism.  Music writers love to list all the different things they hear in cringe-inducingly silly language using phrases like “splashy cymbal work,” or “incendiary overdriven guitar riffage.”  Even if a writer manages to accurately describe the different instruments on a recording and the sounds they make, it still won’t give the reader an idea of how the music will make them feel.  As Elvis Costello famously said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

For example, I wonder how a critic would describe the band Big Business.  Big Business was one of my favorite bands in high school.  They regularly toured with the Melvins, another one of my all time favorite bands, as their opening act and eventually became members.  I saw them every time they came to town and was always blown away.  

They started as a two-piece, a bassist/vocalist and a drummer, but they usually toured with a guitarist as well.  I’ve just rediscovered their album “Here Come the Waterworks” which was a real standby for high school me. The nostalgia factor alone makes it fun for me to listen to but I still find the record impressive.  The instrumentation is pretty much exactly like their touring setup—bass, drums vocals and sometimes guitar—and they definitely took a hands-off approach in terms of production.  I could try to describe their style but I would feel a bit hypocritical, and luckily I can just do this…

What blows me away is how the band makes so much music happen with so few resources. If I tried to describe each musician’s individual contribution, the band would sound pretty unremarkable, yet the music is powerful, heavy, catchy, fun and above all unmistakably them.  The bass playing, the singing, and the drumming are all excellent, but it isn’t any one of these elements that makes the band great, it is all of them together.  The bass and drums can play a melodic role, while the vocals can contribute texture, or the rhythm of the lyrical phrasing can work together with the drums to contribute to the groove.  It’s a careful balancing act that the band manages masterfully.  At no point does the music feel incomplete, and in fact they deliver more in terms of power, texture and even pop-sensibility than many bands with much larger or more unique instrumentations. 

Big Business’ music is more than the sum of parts.  I think writers, myself included, overemphasize parts because they are tangible and relatable.  But then again, the day a writer or a critic can articulate everything that’s great about wine, or music, or anything else is the day it’s no longer necessary experience it.  Maybe a writer’s job is just to whet our appetites for the real thing.

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