I've done a lot of reading since I started this blog. Reading voraciously is really nothing new to me; I've been an avid reader all my life, from all the Star Trek and other science fiction books I devoured as a kid, to the studies of music theory, history, and humanities I regularly take in. I figured I'd let everyone know what I've read over the past year, why I read it, and what exactly I got out of it.
The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press, 2008)
Taruskin, the UC Berkeley musicologist who wrote The Oxford History of Western Music, is the most controversial figure in contemporary musicology (with the possible exception of Susan McClary, whom he mentions in numerous essays). These essays, written over the past two decades, deal with such topics as historically authentic performance, moral implications of certain works, and composers who don't attempt to connect with an audience. This last part was really what drove me to my composer's credo: Write what you feel and write what you know. The two aren't mutually exclusive, and while I'll always have Howard Roark's desire to be true to myself, that doesn't come with an impenetrable ivory-tower attitude. Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez bear the brunt of Taruskin's criticism (considering Babbitt wrote a treatise entitled "Who Cares If You Listen?", this doesn't surprise me), with the rigid interpreters of "authentic" performance practice also taking quite a few hits (Taruskin performed professionally on viola da gamba with the Aulos Ensemble, among others; he knows that Wagner should not be stripped down, clarified, and "classicized", and he lets us know it). Taruskin often comes across as arrogant and combative, but this is a case of "the jerk has a point"; I'd rather read his thoughts than more regurgitated presentations of what's acknowledged to be fact.
Listen to This, by Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010)
This is a compilation of essays by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker. During my undergrad, I read Ross's twentieth century account, The Rest is Noise, and I felt (and still do) that Ross wrote the seminal account of the century and the men behind the music. This time, he follows such notables as Bjork, Radiohead, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and John Luther Adams, in addition to conducting a contemporary examination on the work of Schubert, Brahms, and Verdi, among others. I can't say enough about Alex Ross; he's accessible to both the professional musicologist and the casual reader, and I couldn't put this book down.
Tim Page on Music: Views and Reviews, by Tim Page (Amadeus Press, 2002)
I first read Tim Page's prose when he was the executive producer of BMG Catalyst, a short-lived record imprint label that dealt with contemporary classical, avant-garde, and eclectic music. I'm pretty sure that my fondness for liner notes came mostly from reading his work. This is a compilation of his essays as seen in the Washington Post (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997) that demonstrate why he's regarded as one of our foremost music critics. Page answers many music listeners' questions when he examines such subjects as Kathleen Battle (HOW did her personality cause her career to fizzle?), Michael Hersch (WHERE did he come from, and WHAT makes his compositions stand out from the crowd?), and David Helfgott (WHY were we disappointed when his public concerts didn't match his personal success story?), as well as addressing the current state of the symphony orchestra and promotion in today's financial climate. Always insightful and controversial (Vladimir Horowitz, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio take some hits here!), I can't recommend Tim Page's book enough!
Miles Davis: Dark Prince and Herbie Hancock: Blue Chip Keyboardist, by Ken Trethewey (Jazz-Fusion Books, 2012)
These didn't work for me, really...it seems like Trethewey is trying hard to provide information and give his opinions at the same time, but when they come together, his opinions seem, well...uninformed; for example, he admits that he's not a fan of free jazz, and consequently writes off all of Herbie's Mwandishi albums with a few cursory sentences. The Hancock book is actually the better of the two, if only for the reason that this is the first major Herbie Hancock biography, and Trethewey is very comprehensive, especially when it comes to his later albums. There is really nothing to recommend about his Miles Davis bio, though: It is filled with inaccuracies (he refers to Cab Calloway as a WHITE man!) and muddled, biased tone. There are plenty of excellent Miles biographies; don't waste your time with this one. Hopefully Ken Trethewey will improve with the rest of the books in his jazz fusion series (he's done John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, and Weather Report so far).
The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music, by Richard Williams (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)
Speaking of excellent Miles biographies, this one isn't about the man himself as much as it is about his modal masterwork, Kind of Blue. The best way to describe the process behind Blue and the further effect it had (and still has) is that it's like a musical version of the show Touch, in which every action has a linked chain of effects. In this case, George Russell's work with modes inspired Miles to record his own modal tunes, Kind of Blue was released, and its influence spread everywhere: Terry Riley, John Cale, Talking Heads, and The Who are only a few of the artists who were touched by Kind of Blue in different ways. I can't describe it any better; this is a must-read for theorists as well as jazz and rock lovers...there will be a lot of listening going on after you read this!
George Russell: The Story of an American Composer, by Duncan Heining (Scarecrow Press, 2009)
The first thing I did after finishing The Blue Moment was to find out as much as possible about George Russell, whose Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization became the dominant field of study in jazz theory. Heining's comprehensive biography is the first major work about Russell and hits every detail of his life and work. This is definitely the most important and necessary musician's biography to come along for years, as George Russell is finally getting the recognition he deserves after his death. The current edition of the Lydian Chromatic Concept is also essential, if a little expensive; it's only available on Russell's publishing website.
Current and Future Reading:
A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice, by Dmitri Tymoczko
How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care), by Ross W. Duffin
Stravinsky's Late Music, by Joseph N. Straus
Modern Music and After, by Paul Griffiths
How Music Works, by David Byrne
Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, by Igor Stravinsky
Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought, by Alexander Rehding
Schenker's Interpretive Practice, by Robert Snarrenberg
Text & Act: Essays on Music and Performance, by Richard Taruskin
On Russian Music, by Richard Taruskin
Tonality and Transformation, by Steven Rings
The Elements of Music: Melody, Rhythm, and Harmony, by Jason Martineau
Harmonograph: A Visual Guide to the Mathematics of Music, by Anthony Ashton
I remember it like it was yesterday...
(How's THAT for a cliched opener?)
It was freshman year, I was on the band bus, and we were on our way to whichever away football game it was that we were playing that Friday. As always, I was sitting next to "Injun" Ted Conley: baritone, partner-in-crime, and eventually my co-section leader. Injun had spent the last bus ride talking up one of his favorite albums, Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick.
That night, I'd finally get to hear it, and my ears were opened. Up until then, I knew what kinds of music I liked (Barenaked Ladies, Elvis Costello, Santana, and Paul Simon took up most of my CD collection, and to some degree still do), but Tull was something different entirely. This was prog-rock with organ instead of synthesizers, folk with flute (and sax, AND trumpet), Renaissance meets rock. I was hooked instantly. Tull's leader, Ian Anderson, was a troubadour for our time, a Minstrel In The Gallery!...
...yes, I had to drop my second-favorite Tull album in there too.
According to Injun, the song was written by Anderson, under the guise of Gerald Bostock, an 8-year-old English schoolboy from St. Cleve (no such place, for those of you keeping score). Gerald wrote the poem for a local poetry contest and won, but was disqualified due to the subversive nature of the poem, according to The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser--and let me digress at this point--the newspaper is one of the best things about this album. As its cover, it sends up the trivial small-town paper and proves pretty subversive in its own right, but I don't think you should take my word for it: Here it is in its entirety...and yes, I know what Fluffy the Duck was looking at...come on, you guys. The newspaper established a separate universe for the song, grounding it in some inside-joke version of reality.
The album itself was a send-up, satirizing the overblown concept album and its focus on large, "big-picture" concepts, complete with often-obtuse text and virtuosic solos from Martin Barre on lead guitar, John Evan on organ, and Barriemore Barlow on all percussion, not to mention Anderson out front on the flute (and sax, AND trumpet, and you get the picture). Together with Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond on bass, this was the band's lineup for the early-to-mid 70s, often considered their best ever.
TAAB became my favorite album, and I had to keep going from there...thanks, Injun. I purchased the follow-up, A Passion Play, and was again, struck by the cover. Ian and the gang had set this concept album as a play complete with program, apparently set in the same St. Cleve/Linwell area. It occurs to me that this concept behind the two albums would lend itself to a surreal film project along the lines of Across The Universe, but unfortunately, no one has caught on. However, A Passion Play is a story for another day. The first time I heard Thick As A Brick, it was on my cheap Aiwa portable CD player in the fall of 2000, the album was almost 30 years old, and the casual listener might have thought Gerald Bostock was a real person, if they cared.
Today, the album is 40 years old, I listen to it on my Asus laptop, and listeners are asking, "Whatever happened to Gerald Bostock?"
Well, according to Ian Anderson, Gerald Bostock is 50 years old, and his life could have gone five different ways, as shown in Anderson's new album, Thick As A Brick 2. First things first, this is NOT a Jethro Tull album; it was recorded and released as an Anderson solo project, and Martin Barre, the only other member of the band left over from TAAB, is absent, presumably due to work on his own solo projects. Current Tull members David Goodier (bass) and John O'Hara (keyboards) are on the album, which also features drummer Scott Hammond (Doane Perry is Tull's current drummer) and lead guitarist Florian Opahle. Secondly, as I mentioned, the focus is of the poem and on Gerald himself, or rather, five of his possible futures, exploring "what-ifs, maybes, and might-have-beens." Whether he's a decadent banker, a gay homeless guy, a soldier dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a bullying fire-and-brimstone preacher, or just an ordinary shopkeeper, you sense that his life was affected in some way by his poetry, and the new lyrics serve in the same spirit as the original: still a satire, but moving its focus from the life of man to the life of a man.
And while St. Cleve might have discovered new forms of media, the tone remains the same...heh heh...
Composition, theory, history, and daily life....this is a series of both fact and perspective. I'm Mark Dundore, and this is what I'm about.