Sounding Off

Gilda Williams: How to Write about Contemporary Art
Gilda Williams: How to Write about Contemporary Art

Gilda Williams, in her succinctly brilliant guidebook How to Write About Contemporary Art, offers three questions that every piece of art writing should attempt to answer. They are: What is it? What does it mean? And why should anyone care? These questions, Williams says, are essential, and apply to any work of art writing, from the humble gallery caption to the catalogue essay to the scholarly monograph.

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The same three questions can be asked, quite naturally, in any work of writing about contemporary music. Yet are they always? Lots of writing about new music is very good at answering the first two. This in itself is no mean feat. Without the benefit of concrete, material objects that you can point and describe in terms that anyone can visualise, writing about what happens in a piece of music – what it is, what it is made of – requires specialised literary and imaginative skills, often acquired over a long period of study and graft. It’s understandable if the effort this requires (to say nothing of the wordcount real estate) leaves little capacity to go much beyond description and a brief assessment of what it all means. This is even more the case in the field of new music, where the shared frames of reference may be even more unreliable.

As a consequence, the question of ‘why should anyone care’ is often overlooked. But we should care, at least if music is to have any resonance beyond the brief moment of its sounding. Books have been written asking why modern art fares grips the public imagination better than modern music. Often the blame is laid at the feet of composers themselves, for making stylistic or aesthetic choices that audiences find offputting. But if this was all there was to it, the music of Robin Holloway, say, would be much more widely known.

What is it? What does it mean? And why should anyone care?

Writers more sympathetic to experimental or modernist aesthetics blame the formal differences between art and music. You only need stand in an installation as long as you wish, they argue. If you don’t like it, move on. If you don’t like a piece of music in a concert, however, you’re stuck in your seat (unless you’re part of that brave minority that does occasionally walk out of a performance). This partly explains the tendency in a lot of recent music towards generalised states – music that behaves more like an object than a story, that can be dipped in and out of, played in noisy bars, spatialised around a gallery or a park, or listened to on headphones while travelling to work. But it doesn’t explain the opposite and simultaneous aspiration within the visual arts to create temporal forms: films, immersive experiences, sound art, journey forms and so on. The situation is more complicated.

Which brings me back to writing. Perhaps the difference between how we receive art and music lies in how they are written about. Of art, for a variety of reasons, it is easier to consider its relevance to the wider world: it is made of recognisable things; it is tangible, commodifiable; it relates more obviously to the practical disciplines of architectures, design and fashion. Music has few of these advantages. But that only makes it more important, I believe, to ask the question.

It is partly with this in mind that we are launching a new opinion column space: Sounding Off. All art forms benefit from lively, public debate, and from our next issue anyone involved in new music is invited to make short, provocative, polemical contributions to the question of why anyone should care about this music that we all love. All ideas are welcomed: if you have one, please get in touch at

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