Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is Style?

Listening to Tony Bennett, singing with various luminaries on his "Duets" album this week, I am not aware that I am listening to an 80-year-old legend (now 85 or so) who outshines most of his singing partners. I hear only the familiar voice of a master vocalist, and I appreciate him now more than I did 40-plus years ago.

He's a master stylist, especially in the way he, k.d.lang and a great jazz trumpeter turn the old song "Because of You" into something memorable. In part because it is slow and you savor every word, every note. Something ordinary is turned into the extraordinary. Bennett expresses great feeling, an intelligent, mellow feeling and a sound that's ageless.

That's, I suppose, what style is: something indefinable, something to do with feelings truly felt and expressed artfully, perfectly, uniquely. It's not something you can learn.

I heard it again this week in one of Don McLean's old songs, "Crying," a Ray Orbison classic that McLean turns into an unforgettable aria.

As I think about style in general, about writing style, which I aim to teach each year, I realize again how impossible it is to explain; it is there to be experienced. Some analysis of sentence structure and word choice are important in any discussion of prose style, but the overall tone is unique to each individual who writes. Some have a keen ear for language and rhythm, just as some develop an ear for music; with practice, they can display their own style. A few will become masters.

Tony Bennett and Don McLean are masters. I am grateful to have re-discovered their art and their ability to slow down the pace of my life with their songs.

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