Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The musicality of language – an interview with David Arcus

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We learn so much from each other, particularly from other artists.

This month, I’ve been thinking a lot about rhythm, and what rhythm does to story. It’s so important, and it’s not a static thing either: it changes as the tension increases, as different people talk, as moods shift and as people change. It’s so hard to nail because it’s such a shifting target. It’s also so apparent when it’s used well. I thought that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was a stunning example of the ebb and flow of rhythm. As I was reading it, I kept thinking that I want to be able to do this, this thing that he’s doing that I can’t even properly explain. So I went looking for help.

The musicality of language is something that I want to know about, so I thought that I’d contact a musician to learn more about it. I talked to David Arcus, who is one of my favourite composers, musicians, songwriters, and one of my favourite people. He’s composed, arranged, and written for so many different kinds of bands, ensembles and orchestras, for so many different types of music, and there’s something so interesting about this ability to learn all the different languages of all the different instruments and all the different cultures and traditions of different kinds of music.
He’s also managed, somehow, to turn commercials into art. Dave is brilliant. He’s studied a bunch of different things, and he kills at trivia. He’s also really nice. He let me interview him while he was having an intensely busy month. (I should also mention that we've known each other since we were little; this is by no means the first time I've asked for his help understanding something.)

To set the mood for this interview, please listen to this beautiful song by one of Dave's band's, Hello Gumption.

Here’s our conversation.


Music depends so much on tension – the build and the release. This is something that I struggle with in my work in writing novels. Do you think much about tension while you’re writing your music? Do you have tips about the management of tension in general?

It depends on the style of music I'm writing. With classical music, tension is a really important element. It's one of the things that propel a piece of music forward. We talk about dissonance and resolution. Dissonance occurs when two notes clash. It's resolved when one or more of the notes move, creating a more pleasing combination of notes. The ear craves that resolution. That's one of the keys to writing in a classical style: understanding those expectations - i.e. knowing what the ear wants to hear and then being deliberate about when you provide that resolution (or deny it). It's a skill that requires a lot of practice, one that I continue to work on.

You also wrote lyrics. When it comes to lyrical material, do you write lyrics after the music is complete or let the lyrics inform the instrumentation?

Often I'll start with the musical accompaniment. I'm a guitarist so I like to play around and just start strumming chords to get inspired. When it comes to adding a melody and lyrics, if I'm lucky they'll kind of come out together. Even if it's just a fragment of a lyric with a melody attached. That's usually how the best stuff comes. There's some mysterious logic as to how they fit together. But often I'm not that lucky and I may just hear a melody. I'll then spend a lot of time trying to come up with the lyrics to match it. I find music comes more easily than words.

As a follow up about lyrics, I wonder if you think that words themselves are musical? Do you hear different kinds of musicality in different kinds of writing or speech?

There's definitely a musicality to the way people speak. Different languages will tend to have different rhythms to them. I frequently collaborate with a Brazilian singer named Aline Morales. There are certain types of phrasing (where the accents of the words fall relative to the beat) that will feel natural for her as a Portuguese speaker, but that I could never come up with. If I write a melody for her to sing, I always find it interesting how she'll adapt the rhythms to fit with a Portuguese lyric. I think the rhythms of our language definitely influence the melodies we write.


I love what he wrote about dissonance and resolution, and craving and expectation. I’m starting to think about that in the manuscript that I’m working on. I’m writing a lot about dissonance as well, dissonance in atmosphere and setting (since I’m writing about the site of a major nuclear accident), so I’m going to think about it more in terms of storytelling and structure as dissonance-resonance, tension-release as well. Last night, I started to write a whole new section.

I talked to a friend at Word on the Street and was reminded about another conversation I’d had with a visual artist: she talked at length about white space and her struggles to balance what was on her canvas and what she wanted to suggest, what should happen in the mind of the observer, and I ran home and erased pages and pages from the manuscript I was working on.

I love living in Toronto sometimes. I love how many artists we can meet and how generous they are with their time and abilities. I'm also very grateful that I know brilliant people like David Arcus.

Here are some links to hear more about David Arcus:

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page