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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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