On Joyful Noise

Image of someone playing an electric guitar
Image: Subsonic Eye by KEXP


I hope the ever-approaching end of the year is treating you well! I’m Varsha, the new editorial assistant intern at Ethos Books. As someone who writes but is new to publishing, it’s been a delight to work alongside a team that treats each part of the editorial process with thoughtfulness and care.

Reading and editing manuscripts daily, and taking in so many writers’ words, has led me to think more about what draws me specifically as a reader. There are moments when I find myself reading what I process as “good writing”, but that doesn’t evoke anything in me beyond the acknowledgement that it is “technically” well written.

While that mental and emotional entanglement will likely not resolve itself here, I’d like to tell you all about a genre of writing that does captivate me, and that many might consider niche: music writing.

“This is the difficult work: convincing a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath—in a world where there is so much grief to be had, leading the people to water and letting them drink from your cupped hands.”
- Hanif Abdurraqib

After attending a Carly Rae Jepsen concert, poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib penned an essay that included the quote above: a meditation on experiencing joyous sounds with one another. As COVID restrictions slowly begin to allow for live gigs in Singapore, the notion of setting sadness aside for just one night, and the weight of that request, is one I think about often.

The act of ascribing words to music, whether describing sound literally or the emotions that sound can evoke, is fascinating to me. Even if one doesn’t describe themselves as a music fan, most of us consume and enjoy it in some way, regardless of whether we actively think about it or not. That’s one of the reasons why I find writing on music so appealing—it can activate something in my subconscious that I didn’t realise I cared about before then.

A genre I’ve felt drawn to recently, whose very name was drawn from a concert review, is shoegaze. Coined by a journalist and picked up on in the 1980s, it was inspired by musicians who frequently use effects pedals to create a dreamy, complex sound, but often stare down at their feet to work the pedals一hence, shoegaze. (Check out Cosmic Child and Subsonic Eye for a hint of what it sounds like.)

It’s an anecdote that is well-worn among music nerds, and one that feels equal parts ridiculous and poetic. As someone who writes and can be found looking awestruck at gigs, I’m always excited about how the two worlds I’m passionate about—the sonic and the literary—can come together and create something entirely new.

Whether it’s your favourite playlist that gets your brain working in the morning, or the album that you immediately turn to when you’ve had a bad day, I hope that music—in whatever way it takes shape in your life—brings you some comfort in this year and the next.

Take care,

(From November 13, 2021)

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