COMLIT 190 | Writing about Words and Music

2020 Spring

Timothy Hampton & Kathryn Crim

What about music seems to set it “before” the language arts?  Does it have to do with how difficult it is to write about sound?  Does music “mean” as literature does, or does literature always strive vainly to become a kind of music?

As the field of Comparative Literature has expanded to consider the intersection of written texts with different media, music and the related discipline of “sound studies” have become a point of specific scholarly interest.  

In this seminar, we take the tension between sound and language as a point of departure for developing our own critical writing.  We read literary works that engage deeply with the resources of music and listen to musical selections that draw energy from their proximity to “literature.”  Imaginative texts by such authors as Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Zadie Smith, Brecht, and Toni Morrison are studied along with theoretical writings by Barthes, Adorno, Rousseau, and Questlove, among others. 

And we set our reading in dialogue with diverse musical traditions–from Western “classical” music, to the Mexican corrido, to rock, to jazz, to Hip Hop.  We read widely in the different “genres” of music writing—from the philosophical essay, to the record review, to the blog post.  And we work together on developing our own critical voices through a sustained engagement with the writing process—argument, articulation, revision, style.

How can critical writing, which uses language, describe and come to terms with the impact of music, a medium that by definition resists language?  How do language and sound shape each other?  How can we write about what seems to be a non-verbal form of communication?  How is an essay like a jazz improvisation?  What is the relationship between poetic meter and musical rhythm? What is “voice”?

The course offers us the opportunity to engage with an important literary-critical problem while dramatically strengthening our writing skills.