Dancing about architecture

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The name of the music section of this blog — “Dancing about architecture” — is inspired by the oft-quoted line “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In my description of the category I attributed this quote to Elvis Costello, but with something less than 100% confidence, because I was pretty sure I’d seen it attributed to others over the years. Today I ran across a Web page that credited Steve Martin, and so I decided to investigate.

Turns out there is no definitive answer to the question of who first uttered this pithy phrase. A very informative brief put together by one Alan P. Scott — which you can see here — dissects the matter in some detail.

As Scott notes, in addition to Costello and Martin, the line has at one time or another been attributed to each of the following people:

– Laurie Anderson
– William S. Burroughs
– David Byrne
– John Cage
– George Carlin
– Miles Davis
– Nick Lowe
– Charles Mingus
– Thelonious Monk
– Mark Mothersbaugh
– Martin Mull
– Frank Lloyd Wright
– Frank Zappa

It’s quite a diverse and accomplished group, and I think that it must be a very great distinction to have the saying attributed to you. With any luck, some confused Web surfer of the future will honor yours truly in this way.

On balance, the most likely suspects seem to be Costello and Mull. Scott cites an interview with Costello in a 1983 issue of Musician magazine in which he is quoted thusly:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.

This does not firmly establish, however, that he was the first to say it.
Several sources — including, apparently, Costello himself — name Martin Mull as the originator of the phrase. I find this especially interesting in light of the Steve Martin connection, S. Martin and Martin M. being always linked in my mind as groundbreaking ironic/musical comics who went on to become noted Hollywood art lovers with increasingly undistinguished acting careers. Since I’m a Mull fan, and I think he never gets the credit he deserves as the author of such classic tunes as “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” and “Licks Off of Records,” I’m going to go ahead and award the prize to him. Let it be so noted.

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