Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solveig's song

A couple of weeks ago, after almost three years of it sitting on my shelf, I finally read Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt". A grand achievement indeed, reading this... hmm... 223 page long play, by one of my favorite playwrights, one who has disappointed me so rarely (though Ibsen has disappointed me, here and there...). How... complex.

The thing about "Peer Gynt" is that I kept putting it off. Here's a play best known for Edvard Grieg's musical interpretation of it, not for its literary merit. That's where I know it from and I suspect the vast majority of readers associate Ibsen's work with the quite beautiful suite (my personal favorite from the bunch is "Solveig's Song"; absolutely incredible). It's a rare example where listening to the music doesn't remind the reader of the book, but rather the music paints the story and the book reminds the reader of the music. It's strange, too, because the music is meant to accompany the play. The English translation and the ultimate suite make this difficult to imagine these days, when the play is typically thought of only in reference to Grieg.

Here's what I discovered: it makes a difference. I had long intended to read the play along with the music, except I suddenly found myself wanting to dig into Ibsen and Grieg was nowhere to be found. So I just read the play. It was strange, partly because the order within the suite is different than the progression of the book (completely different, in fact), but also because I had a feel for the story before it even began. I knew key points simply because the songs were titled as such and the music to "Solveig's Song" made one scene clear just based on the musical interpretation. It actually meant that even though the play was far from the best of Ibsen's I've read, it was a moving, intense read. Scenes where I liked the music, I smiled at the words. Scenes where the music was unimpressive, I shrugged my shoulders and felt the urge to skim.Grieg and Ibsen (allegedly, according to Wikipedia and my translation) often had different ideas about how the music should sound. I have to wonder how this schism is reflected today, when Ibsen is largely ignored for his verse work and Grieg is played in concert halls round the world. And what it'll be like to reread "Peer Gynt" along with the actual incidental music (not the infamous suites...)? I'm intrigued to find out. Of course, it may take something akin to three years just to get there...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Poetry of lyrics

I'm not much of a poetry fan or poet, but there's a charm to reading poems every once in a while. Literature seems, somehow, to include poetry in it. The Guardian writes about poems about as often as it writes about novels. Some poems are actually books (I'm looking at you, Homer), long epics that tell a story in rhymes (often lost in translation). And don't get me started on the poetry translation theory. But as I was rereading my favorite Shakespeare sonnet the other day, I was struck by the opening line which was what had made it my favorite in the first place:
Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Right. So not remarkable on its own, but something there is interesting. A poem (a sonnet, no less) starts out with reference to something very closely related to poetry: music. These days, poetry publications are fairly rare. People made a big deal of someone reading a poem at the presidential inauguration. There isn't much of a culture for poetry. It's not really taught in school, and if it is, it's done in a very boring way. And yet poetry is not dead. Sylvia Plath, poet and novelist, is still famous. And not simply for the incredible "The Bell Jar", but also (mostly) for her poetry. Indeed, even her early poetry is enough to make readers sit back and shiver a little:

The mindless April leaves heave sighs
And twirl in aimless sarabandes.
My fingers curl and clutch the sky;
Green blood flows in green-veined hands.

This is a snippet but it leaves an impression. Either I'm woefully uninformed (also an ominous sign) or the standard form of poetry is going out of style. Exit Shelley (Percy, beautiful poems), enter music. Lyrics, to be more precise. The last few years have seen a rise in story-like songs, songs with impressive word choices and clever games. As music styles themselves develop, so do the lyrics that accompany them. Some bands tell stories clearly with nothing particularly complex. Others choose to literally put poetry to music. I can think of many songs with very special lyrics. An example:
To dress up your wounds
Wash off the salt
Freshen the blooms
At your sea-rusted altar
While simple, this chorus from "Fire Snakes" (Laura Veirs) has an underlying poetic feel to it. Most of her songs do. This is just one example for this kind of music-driven poetry. And it seems English teachers are catching on. So while there are hundreds of poem-songs out there, some better than others (apologies to all the great lyrics that couldn't fit in this post today; the draw was entirely random), it's interesting to see the not-so-stark comparisons between these "poems" and Shakespeare, who instead wondered why we listen to music sadly. Anyone with specific poetic songs are welcome to leave bring them up.

And let's not forget: Croatian, Hebrew, and Slovenian all use the same word to mean both "song" and "poem".