Who said this?

Who said this? September 24, 2003

"Writing/Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

I first read this in the liner notes to something from Laurie Anderson (United States — I think). I recalled her attributing it to Steve Martin.

Since then I've also seen it variously attributed to Frank Zappa, David Bowie, David Byrne, Robin Hitchcock and Elvis Costello.

Googling provides little guidance — "dancing about architecture" gets some 12,100 hits. Eventually you find your way to this page, where Alan P. Scott does his best to find a definitive citation.

The oldest he finds is from Elvis Costello in October of 1983. Anderson's multl-record set didn't come out until 1984, but United States debuted the previous year, in February. It seems unlikely she would have read the Costello interview and added the quote to her eight-hour performance art piece. (Although she might have, the piece includes several "songs" reflecting a similar idea, such as "Language Is a Virus" and "Let X=X.")

Anyway, Scott adds to the list of suspects, including (among others) John Cage, Thelonius Monk, William S. Burroughs and Martin Mull.

While it's kind of apt and delightful that a quote about the limits of language should be so difficult to trace, the copy editor in my head insists on finding a citation.

Any ideas?

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  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden

    I am morally certain I first saw that in the 1970s, attributed at the time to Frank Zappa. Of course, I doubt I can document it.

  • none

    Ditto -heard it attributed to Zappa, and more than once. However, I could see it being said by Monk, and since rock writers generally had little to do with jazz, they could’ve attributed it to Zappa without their knowing Zappa was quoting someone else.

  • Mr Ripley

    I’ve always heard the Costello attribution –often paired with “And rock journalism, as Frank Zappa said, constitutes people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t speak for the benefit of people who can’t read.”

  • Crispix Attacks

    I always thought it was said by Charles Mingus.