Assay@NFN15: “Music and Writing”

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Thomas Larson, Richard Terrill, Will Jennings, Bob Cowser

Thomas Larson: quotes Danish composer Pederson: “My music has a lot to say, but it’s not about anything.” Larson likes this simultaneous affirmation of yet resistance to meaning. He also quotes the famous line of Pater’s: “All the arts aspire to the condition of music” – and while he’s grappled with this, he disagrees, and thinks music’s representational nature is overstated. He notes that Woolf, writing on Wagner’s music, thought that music’s power of suggestion was due to its lack of specificity – all it can do is emote or move us emotionally. Steven Pinker calls it “auditory cheesecake” and finds it unnecessary to evolutionary development.

Richard Terrill: for Mendelsohn, the ideas expressed by music weren’t too indefinite to put into words, but rather too definite. He describes an aphasia he has while playing jazz – an inability to move between words (speech and/or writing) and jazz improvisation – the two languages are processes that aren’t compatible. Language and music don’t come from the same part of the brain. Musicians have to be in the moment and collaborate/listen to each other – writers have more trouble with this, as do readers. Apart from pure memoir or reportage, nonfiction needs to bounce its experience off something – Terrill thinks that writing about our response to the arts (music) is a way to do this.

Bob Cowser: cites Adorno, who said that the logic of an essay is not necessarily linear, and notes the parallel to music. Cowser approaches this topic laterally – he’s written about his mother’s dementia, and is struck by how music can access memory in dementia patients, just as CNF seeks to. Cowser then read a piece that was part of an NEH project on the folk music revival, about Pete Seeger.

Will Jennings: read an essay that wove together playing harmonica as part of an improv group, Gene Schumacher and NASA’s space geology, music, and the song “Same Moon.”


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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