Words Fail Us

By Barry Kempton

In last week’s blog, I mentioned a keynote address by Eric Booth at the Chamber Music America annual conference.  One of the highlights of that address were Eric’s observations about the importance of how we talk about music.  A dry, fact-based introduction to a piece of music might be interesting to some, but a key point he made was that if a musician identifies an entry point to a piece of music that is important to him or herself and speaks about it convincingly, it is far more likely to prepare a listener for that piece of music.

I was reminded of a related thought that returns to me often:  talking about music is difficult.  Whether you are a performer, a marketing professional, a presenter or an audience member, we all struggle to articulate what it is about a piece of music that makes it special to us.  We become quickly tongue-tied or resort to clichés.

How often do you see the words “exciting” or “internationally renowned” written in promotional materials?  As words and phrases like these get used so often, they lose all meaning and subsequently aren’t particularly effective.

I’ve had conversations over the years with musicians – orchestra members, chamber musicians, composers and soloists alike who feel uncomfortable speaking from the stage.  There’s some truth to the assertion that “the music should speak for itself,” and yet most audiences appreciate some kind of spoken introduction.  Just the act of speaking with enthusiasm conveys to some extent encouragement to the listener that there’s something worth listening to.

For me the heart of this challenge of speaking and writing about music is that music is a language itself, a universal language for that matter.  Trying to translate into English (or any other human language) what a good piece of music “is about” is hard because whatever is said waters down what the music itself directly communicates.   Whatever string of sentences we come up with rarely does the music justice.

And yet I still believe we should always try.

For promotional purposes, artists and presenters now have the opportunity to take advantage of video clips.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder how many words a video clip is worth?