Writing the dark sounds: cante jondo, duende ... and writing

If you look at my Twitter profile, and of course I know all of you have looked at my Twitter profile, you will see that I use the tagline: I write the dark sounds.

A lot of people interpret that to mean "horror," and when people think of "horror," they think of fiction that is about slashers and blood and zombies, and I know how we arrived here from there, but "the dark sounds" is not about horror.

I initially encountered the phrase while reading one of Federico Garcia Lorca's lectures on artistic expression, Theory and Play of the Duende. In the lecture, Lorca explains that duende is an Andalusian concept that encompasses the dark spirit that sometimes possesses an artist so that they perform with exceptional emotional depth.

Lorca calls the duende the spirit of the earth, but the duende is actually more about artistic passion. As Lorca explains it: technique will take a person far, but duende rises from the soul. Imagine someone with a voice both true and fine, who sings in perfect pitch, yet the performance falls flat. While another individual, whose voice might not be as perfect in tone, can deliver a rendition of the same song and moves an entire roomful of people to tears. In the first example the singer relies entirely on technique, yet delivers a piece without soul, while the latter blends technique with passion to give the audience a memorable show.

In his lecture, Lorca quotes Manuel Torre, a Romani flamenco singer of great renown, as having said: "You have a voice, you understand style, but you’ll never ever succeed because you have no duende." Torre's pronouncement is harsh, and not one with which I agree. People succeed all the time on technique alone. Meanwhile, another might possess duende, but their lack of proficiency will render their work too coarse to enjoy. Remember that Picasso understood form and technique long before he created his heartbreaking depiction of the events at Guernica.

However, an artist can also become a slave to form. That is why I cringe when I hear amateur writers admonishing others about "purple prose," "show don't tell," and "always open with action." These are all good rules to remember, but it's also important for artists to know when to step outside the lines and allow the dark sounds to shine in their prose.

The best principle is for the artist to partner the two: technique and duende. When this transpires, the beauty of form accompanies the artist's soul as they carry their audience along on the dark sounds.

These dark sounds that Lorca exalts are often found in flamenco, a dance form native to Andalusia, Spain. In flamenco, dance (technique) is partnered with duende (soul) to create passionate performances. And while most people hear the word "flamenco" and think only of dance, they forget that flamenco is also accompanied by song, which is known as cante jondo, or deep song.

The early American folk songs that birthed the blues are a close approximation to cante jondo. Both American folk and cante jondo contain themes of love, death, the common person, and the unfairness of life. These songs are delivered poetically and vocally with the power of the dark sounds, the duende. However, in spite of the darker themes, hope is entwined the verses. Sometimes that hope is so thin it is not spoken through the lyrics but is conveyed by the singer's voice, yet it is there.

So when I say I write the dark sounds, I'm not saying that I write horror, but instead that I am attempting to convey the dark sounds of life (and death) into stories. I write about love, death, and the unfairness of life--themes common to us all--but I also write about hope. Most often, I rely on technique, but sometimes, the duende seizes me and I am able to translate my passion into words, and those are the best times indeed.