Chicago-based music journalist and podcaster Tara Mahadevan writes a brief but vivid introduction to this slim new anthology featuring the work of teen writers at 826CHI, the Chicago branch of the 826 Valencia nonprofit that works with young writers across the country. In “Surround Sound,” these young practitioners of the craft write brief memoir pieces about childhood experiences with music, interviews with featured artists at Pitchfork’s popular music festival and love letters to specific people, audiences and aspects of music scenes. The writing emerged from a concentrated summer program where students explored music, then attended the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival. The fact that this collection is called “Surround Sound Vol. 1” leads a reader to think that this is only a beginning foray into writing about music.
The writing is organized into three aptly titled sections, each is comprised of five short pieces. The length and the layout makes this an approachable read for a range of young readers, and it may even be an encouraging text to motivate other young people to write about music as well, especially when there are a couple of short features like “20 Foolproof Ways to Jumpstart An Interview” and the eclectic “Pitchfork 2019 Playlist” which includes selected titles by Pitchfork performers and other notable artists like Mavis Staples, Ibeyi, The Isley Brothers and Stereolab.
The first section, “Mixtape Memoirs,” offers a tender look at how songs pervaded their lives or how others introduced music into their childhoods. A standout piece is Penelope L.’s “Full Circle,” relating how and why she grew to love The Beatles and John Lennon’s song “God,” which Lennon produced with Yoko and Phil Spector. Other pieces make connections to K-Pop group Stray Kids, The Velvet Underground, “The Wizard Of Oz” and Michael Jackson.
The straightforward “Artist Profiles” section features interviews with Pitchfork Fest artists CHAI, black midi, Low, Ric Wilson and Tasha. Although the interviews can be gushy, these are young writers looking at live performance with new eyes, and their excitement is palpable. They could focus more on the concrete details by describing the music and the context that inspires these sounds, but if there are future volumes, this is a promising project that could nurture strong music critics.
The third and final section, “Bonus Tracks,” is where these young writers shine with clear and moving prose that are essentially open letters. Sarah P. and Nico C. write epistolary poems to Mac Ayres and Weezer, respectively. Penelope L. writes to fellow women who brave rough waves of mosh pits, and Madelyn A. writes a heartfelt missive to Green Day. Lucia M. closes out this section with an open letter to all the performers at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
A quick, entertaining read, “Surround Sound” brims with personality in each piece. As for potential readers, if you want to encourage a young writer that you know, but aren’t necessarily trying to start them off with Greil Marcus, Greg Tate or Ann Powers, “Surround Sound Vol. 1” could be a good start.
“Surround Sound Vol. 1: Reflections and Profiles by The Students of 826CHI at the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival”
By 826CHI Pitchfork Writing Intensive
826CHI, 48 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.