What Miles Davis Can Teach Us About Writing
The New York Times’ Opinionator blog has an ongoing series called Draft about the art and craft of writing. Today, Aaron Gilbreath looks at Miles Davis and how the sparsity of his solos tell stories in their silences and how writers can do well by doing the same.
Where David Foster Wallace showed writers like me the possibilities of labyrinthine stories and digressions, Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose. Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.
Many writers fall prey to the quintessential American notion that bigger is better. They overload their sentences, adding more adjectives, more descriptions, more component phrases, tangents and appositives to form sprawling, syntactical centipedes (like this one) whose many segments and exhausting procession repeat themselves and say the same thing in different ways, with different words, and exhibit an entire ideology: that prose’s sensory and poetic impacts exist in direct proportion to the concentration of words.
Aaron Gilbreath, New York Times. Writing with Miles Davis.
Video: Kind of Blue 50th Anniversary, via Legacy Recordings.
Yeah he’s a lil Hemingwayesque, no? I also had a favorite anecdote about Miles that I’ve shared with a few people & I like how it applies to writing. John Coltrane, when working with Miles’ group at one point, was performing longer & longer solos, exploring a multitude of musical pathways, and really pushing the boundaries of what was possible in improvisation at the time. So (as I recall — this is a retelling of a retold story) Miles confronted him and asked why he was taking so many choruses. Coltrane apologized, and told him that he didn’t know how to stop playing. Miles responded by telling him, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth.”
I always liked this anecdote and at a certain point at Pitchfork basically stopped trying to wrap up or sum up my pieces. I think once you’ve made your point there’s really no reason to stick to formal conclusions. Some of my Pfork reviews end kind of abruptly for this reason, but I like the idea of getting in, making your point precisely, and immediately just taking the metaphorical horn out of your mouth, dropping the pencil, etc.