Thursday, 27 May 2010

Issue 1 | Music | Music As Reading Introduction

The Music As Reading Silkworms Ink Spotify Mixtape Collection, an introduction

The act of reading is, by and large, taken for granted. At least, the pragmatics of it are. Yes, critical discourse enjoys referring to good and bad reading(s), to close and, increasingly in a world of so-called world literature, distant reading. And popular debate about the positives and problematics of reading novels and newspapers from the screen of a Kindle or an iPad, about the essential literary qualities of the throw-aroundable paperback, continues to fill far more cultural comment column-inches than, really, it ever should have done. Still, certain practical basics of reading are taken for granted, assumed, agreed upon in a way that, when you think about it, is rather curious: we stand or, most likely, sit; we look at a book and only that book; we concentrate on the words, fully; we read them in the direction slash sequence that their author intended us to read them in; we re-read until we understand – perhaps due to distraction, maybe because of the especial complicatedness of a passage. And so on.

Now, of course, and particularly within poetry, this is not universally the case: B.S. Johnson’s avant-garde experiments with literary ordering, experimental sound- and picture-poetry by the likes of Keston Sutherland and David Morley (a chapbook of whose is a highlight of the current Silkworms crop), approaches to reading themselves taken for granted by non-Western and-or archaic cultural traditions (calligraphy, say; right-left reading versus left-right; Blake, and others, etching the originals of their poems in mirror-writing; codes; aural traditions) all attest to this fact. That many of these exceptions represent little more than tweaks to the conventional reading formula – often over-serious, invariably self-consciously niche, frequently debated with a fervour that far outstrips their actual, real-terms significance – suggests, though, that they might well be rule-proving ones.

Question is, is this reading-conservatism a problem? In many ways, no. In fact, it strikes me that reading is one of only a scattering of things that unambiguously benefit from a reasonable dose of conservatism – another example would be making tea. It is of fundamental importance that individuals continue to approach texts with the time, patience, reverence (to a point), a work-ethic, philosophy, lack of hurriedness, lack of expectation of immediate meaning, vocabulary – not to mention imagination, creativity, belief in magic – to do said texts justice. If this concept falters, at the highest levels of reading (for that is what we’re discussing: rigorous, scholarly, energetic reading, not snapshot-thought – so no, Twitter isn’t going to destroy proper reading, it’s simply a new tool for different reading) then literature falters with it.


To focus too much on these conservative fundamentals is to lose sight of less conservative methods of preserving them in a changing world (ugh, changing world – my apologies). Indeed, it seems to me that for all somebody like Sutherland’s attempts to scissor poetic form and the block-structures of reading into something that constitutes, in itself, a form of political polemic, regardless of what convention states the actual words mean, his process represents in many ways an affirmation of the most traditional and conservative tenets of the actual act of reading (slash listening – are they really so different?) Getting anything out of a Sutherland text or reading requires a good deal of old-fashioned hard work. (We’re edging, I think, towards an Adorno-esque understanding of the crucial role difficultness has to play in resistance – a difficultness that is born, probably, out of a conservative approach to the pragmatics of reading – but I suspect that’s a story for another day…)

Long and short of it, difficultness is a good thing! Difficultness equals good reading! Difficultness is poetry, certainly! A by-no-means-new idea, but one that something like, y’know, the internet can facilitate in any number of new ways. The act of reading is taken for granted. This is a problem, because it has the potential to mean that reading, per se, gets left behind, churned in the wake of the digital revolution (ugh, digital revolution – my apologies) – at the expense of the part of reading that must be taken for granted, i.e. difficultness, rigour. We need New Readings. No, that’s not quite right:

We need New Old Readings. In this digital age (Jesus Christ, stop) of ours, we need more Sutherland-style new approaches to preserving traditional principles.

It’ll be with this somewhat lofty concept in mind, coupled with a more humdrum desire to find a way of featuring music on a literary (slash t-shirt) site – because music is a good thing – that Silkworms Ink will launch a brand new feature this coming weekend: the Music As Reading Silkworms Ink Spotify Mixtape Collection. I’ll let that sink in for a moment or two…

The Music As Reading Spotify Mixtape Collection will, like the Silkworms Ink Chapbook Collection, be added to each and every week of the year, the result being a glossy, erudite archive coming together in notimeatall, available for free to anybody – be they regular, contributor or stumble-acrosser. Like the Chapbook Collection, it will be open to submissions from anybody with remarkable ideas – all we ask for is a title, an explanation-blurb, a brief bio and a tracklisting and we’ll do the rest, artwork, the works. What I’m hoping most of all is that some of you start submitting Music As Reading Mixtapes featuring your own compositions, symphonies, soundtracks. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The premise behind the Collection is a very simple one. We need New Readings. So here’s an idea: musical readings. Or, more specifically, Music As Reading: what happens when we make music central to, a fundamental part of the act of reading; if we sandwich music between a text and our comprehension of it; if we regard music as a means to unlocking literature as opposed to an alternative or accompaniment to it? What is music that claims to be about literature, or vice versa? Can lyrics, say, or a libretto, ever constitute music and literature simultaneously? Forget ekphrasis, art about art – what about a synthesis? What about art on top of art?

What happens when we read with music? Do good things happen?

Each week, a new mixtape will explore a different fragment of this utterly massive question. It may be a particularly tiny shard; in fact at the beginning, it probably will be, as the collection finds its feet – not to mention poetry-focussed, as this is where, I’m sure you’ll agree, the most obvious intersections occur. It may be a factual shard (exploring, I don’t know, Songs About Poets), a more practical-experimental shard (Listen To This Song Whilst Reading This Poem And See What Happens) or a philosophical-metaphysical shard (Is A Poem Not Exactly The Same As A Song?) There may be no coherent sequence over the course of a few weeks, followed a few weeksworth of mixtapes exploring exactly the same thing, in slightly different ways. Mixtapes might come complete with new writing, or aim themselves at ancient writing. All that is certain is that, every six weeks or so, my weekly blogpost will focus not on that week’s theme, but on what new lessons and understandings might have been gleaned from the Music As Reading experience of six new mixtapes. The introduction of new mixtapes will generally centre upon a clutch of questions: these mini-essays will hopefully offer up an answer or two.

I think I’ll leave this probably-too-long-already introduction there. Just a few practical details. You’ll need Spotify to listen to each week’s mixtape – register for, at the very least, the free, basic (‘Open’) service here. Mixtape submissions can take, really, any form you like as long as they include the basics listed in bold above – whack them over to, but I’d recommend leaving it a few weeks to see what the collection’s about before doing so. Music As Reading is a concept best understood through practical demonstration. Mixtape-Chapbook joint submissions are also welcome – up to you how you go about doing that.

A final thought: as this week’s theme is Issue 1's here’s a video of what might be considered the first major new-tech example of Music As Reading – on any number of levels. Music As Reading Issue One, then: Nick Cave, musician turned author, reading a chapter of his second novel published last summer, the Death of Bunny Munro, accompanied by a soundtrack composed especially by Cave and his right-hand Bad Seed, Warren Ellis. Oh, and below that, an App advertisement making the case for Cave and Ellis’ project representing a new mode of reading. Revolutionary technique or corporate gimmick – you decidez, kidz…

Nick Cave, novelist
App advertisement

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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