Suavity and charm


Jeff Ousborne considers the importance of the sound of writing and music @ Talking Writing. We don’t listen to old pop songs for their subject matter: I love my baby; my baby left me; my baby still loves me; I’m leaving my baby; why doesn’t my baby love me?

We listen to them, in Victorian critic Walter Pater’s words, for the “suavity” and “charm” that “gives them a worth in themselves."

Suavity and charm: two underused words when we consider the highest aspirations of art. Yet both suggest an effortless, seamless, maybe even magical embodiment of style—in a quicksilvered paragraph from The Great Gatsby, in those terraced arches at the top of the Chrysler Building, or in the filigreed verse of an Elvis Costello song.

In his 1877 essay “The School of Giorgione,” Pater also writes that “[a]ll art constantly aspires to the condition of music.”

The oracular quality of his words may seem overly academic. I first encountered Pater’s criticism when I was in graduate school, after I read such disciples of his as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde. But it’s only since I began writing songs a few years ago—both on my own and with my bandmates—that his claim about art and music has sunk in.

My songs are scratchy pastiches of the sloppy guitar pop from my teenage years, as well as twice-baked homages to earlier confections by the Velvet Underground, the Byrds, and Big Star. My rudimentary music does not aspire to the condition of “art”; it barely achieves the condition of music. But it has made me reflect on the relationship between form, content, and meaning. And that’s Pater’s subject.

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