MUSIC IN BOOKS: ALEX ROSS – The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

ISBN-13: 978-0374249397 (hardcover)
Review by Andreas Georgi

In the 8 years since I wrote this review on Amazon I’ve become a lot more familiar with modern composed (or “classical” or “concert”, or WTF) music, but I still concur with most of the content.  This book was very helpful in directing my attention to a wide range of music.

I really enjoyed it and found it a very educational resource for my musical exploration. I know the term “classical” is incorrect – call it concert music, music in the European tradition of composed music, art music, WHATEVER! For better or for worse using the term “classical” allows most people to know what you’re talking about. For that reason I will use that term in the rest of the review.

In a TV interview and in the preface to the book the author commented that he listened exclusively to classical music until college. In college he would play some things to his fellow students, who would comment that it sounded like Sonic Youth or Cecil Taylor, etc. Although I have been starting to immerse myself in the music for some time now, I am still very much a novice and this book’s release is perfectly timed for me. I am not totally ignorant of older forms of classical music, but I approached 20th Century art music not via Bach and Beethoven, but via Frank Zappa and Ornette Coleman. Frank Zappa, who became my musical idol in my teens (and remains so in my 40’s), was particularly influential in exposing me to a new world of possibilities. He made direct reference to Stravinsky, Varese and Holst, among others, in his music. Likewise in modern jazz there has been a lot of cross-pollination with this music. A jazz fan would find the harmonies in Erik Satie’s piano works not at all unfamiliar.

I suspect that many music fans are also approaching this music in a similar way, and this book will be very helpful. This is not an academic book and it is not aimed at an ivory tower readership. It does not assume an encyclopedic knowledge of all music that’s gone before, although it does use musical terminology, so if you’re not very familiar with such terms (like I am not, really), you’ll want to consult a dictionary or encyclopedia occasionally. A bit of a challenge is hardly a bad thing, I think.

Mr. Ross uses very evocative language to describe the key works of music in his book. This is never an easy task. Music hits you in places that words will never go! Still, he does a very good job. When I was reading this I had never heard most of the music being described, but reading about it I certainly wanted to!

Music does not exist in a vacuum, but is both a product of and an influence on its times. Mr. Ross writes a very compelling narrative which puts the music in the context of the places, times, politics, and the lives of the people involved. This is a fascinating history book as well as a book on music. It’s also full of colorful and entertaining character studies of these composers’ often “unusual” personalities. Their interactions with each other are not necessarily always all that high-minded!

This music has survived in relative obscurity since the early part of the 20 Century. Mr. Ross proposes a number of explanations for this, which the reader may or may not agree with, but one recurring theme is that the various movements in 20th Century music eventually seem to paint themselves in corners through an almost fanatical insistence on taking things to the most abstract and extreme (if the audience likes it, it’s a failure!). Not everyone comes out in favorable light. Pierre Boulez, in particular, comes across a bit absurd in his extreme positions. Whether this is an accurate portrayal I don’t know. Clearly the author’s personal tastes come through here, but he does a good job of describing their mindset.

The first section of the book deals with the events of the early 20th Century – the decline of the decadent old empires, the rapidly-growing role of industry and technology, and others, which led people to search for something new. One recurring theme is the struggle between the aspirations for “pure” art versus a desire to be relevant to society at large. The chapter dealing with Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s struggles and compromises during the height of Stalin’s reign of terror is a highlight. It covers, from a different angle, the some of the subjects dealt in “the Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn.

Sandwiched between the chapters on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany is the chapter on music in the USA in that period. He does not insinuate that they are equivalent, by any means. He does detail how even in the US composers had to navigate through dealings with government bureaucracy and corporate sponsors, for both of whom artistry was perhaps not the top priority.

I could nitpick whether Sibelius and Britten deserve entire chapters while others get little more than name-dropping mention (The chapter on Sibelius is very good). Consequently his coverage of the second half of the century is more condensed. I wish that he might have spent more time on it.

At the end of the book is a recommended discography of 10 recordings, then another 20 more. I have ordered a number of these and look forward to going back and looking at Mr. Ross’s descriptions after actually listening to them. I will leave it to better-informed people to argue whether or not these really are the “best” versions of the pieces, but they seem as good a place as any to start. Certainly it would seem reasonable to me to start your collection of Stravinsky with a performance conducted by the man himself. Coming from a background in performer-oriented rock and jazz, it can be daunting to figure out which performance of a composer’s work is best, so this discography helps such readers get at least a start.

MUSIC IN BOOKS: MARCUS O’DAIR – Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt (2014, Profile Books Ltd.)

ISBN: 978-1593766160 (paperback)
Review by: Andreas Georgi

I’ve been listening to Robert Wyatt’s work for several years now, and have become a big fan, so the release of his authorized biography is very timely for me. After just having finished it, I can strongly recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for this truly unique artist. For anyone interested in learning more about his work, this book also includes a highly comprehensive listing of all the recordings, videos, and print releases in his 50-plus year career.

From a biographical standpoint, he certainly has not had a boring life, from his bohemian upbringing, to pioneering work in psychedelic & progressive rock, touring the US with Hendrix, to the various collaborations, and of course his life-changing fall in 1973 that left him paraplegic and the challenges he overcame as a result, turning difficulties into opportunities.

The book does a good job in illuminating Wyatt as a highly complex, and often troubled, but ultimately highly likeable personality. Repeatedly he comes across as an extremely intelligent, socially conscious, empathetic and generous spirit. The book does a very good job at detailing how this empathy and generosity influenced his work. It’s a cliché, but in his case it is really true that he beats his own path forward. The book does not shy away from dealing with some of his darker moments of depression and abusive drinking, and how it affected his wife Alfie. Key to his story is the equally strong and creative character of Alfreda “Alfie” Benge, his wife, supporter and collaborator for over 40 years.

Last year, at age 70, Robert Wyatt announced his retirement from music. Fans like me hope of course that he changes his mind, but in any event he has left an amazing body of work. There is an accompanying double CD compilation of the same name. The first CD is a compilation of his releases with Soft Machine, Matching Mole, and his solo albums. The second CD is a collection of collaborative efforts, some quite rare. This collection would seem like a good place to jump into his work. I don’t have the CD, but it looks great. Two thumbs up for the book, however!

MUSIC IN BOOKS: BLAIR JACKSON – Garcia: An American Life (Penguin, 2000)

ISBN: 978-0-14-029199-5 (paperback)
Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

The week between the anniversary of Jerry Garcia‘s birth (August 1, 1942) and his death (August 9, 1995) is called The Days Between by deadheads, after a latter day Grateful Dead song. For many music fans, it’s a bittersweet time, because Garcia was a good guitarist and songwriter, but allegedly also a lot more than that. For many people he was a cultural icon. He was like the epitome of love and peace, “being free and being true to oneself and a tremendously positive force. This is a time of year to celebrate him and his art”.
Yeah right. You wouldn’t know it from reading Garcia – An American Life by Blair Jackson. Blair knows the Dead inside out, having edited a fanzine for 10 years, having written several books about the Dead. And in the last few years he wrote several liner notes for releases from the Dead’s Vault. He’s a fan, a friend, very knowledgeable and a good writer.
The book is strictly chronological and devotes attention to Jerry’s personal life from his birth to his death, but also to new (Jerry) songs as they start to appear in the repertoire. An index and a discography (up to date until the original publication date, 1999) are provided as well. It’s an entertaining read, about Haight-Ashbury, the acid tests, the 60’s in San Francisco in general, the evolving Grateful Dead and its (unwilling) leader.
But, unfortunately, Jerry comes across as not necessarily very sympathetic and as being rather weak in business decisions as well as in his personal life. Whenever he wanted somebody out of the band (or out of his side band) he let others (band members or managers) do the dirty job. As a husband and father you cannot say he, unfortunately, failed, you’ll have to conclude he just did not try. Although he supported each and everyone of them financially, emotionally he treated his wifes and girlfriends terribly and he neglected his children, sometimes for years. Not because he was psychopathically antisocial, but because he took ‘freedom’ to its noncommittal extreme, and was afraid to take (responsibility for) decisions.
Does this take away from his musical achievements? (OK, such as they are, but I happen to be a HUGE fan of the Grateful Dead, having close to 350 official releases on cd). Of course not, but it does influence the way you see him as a person. Yes, he is a great guitar player, and in many ways still underrated, because many people can copy a David Gilmour lick or a Jimi Hendrix solo (yes, after they did it first), but not many people can improvise the way Jerry does (i.e. compose ‘on the spot’ and create a new solo just about every time you play that particular song), and do this with a feel for the song (blues, bluegrass, jazz, (hard) rock, prog, or whatever). And a nice enough singer (who doesn’t always memorize his lyrics properly…) and a good to great songwriter he may be, but his status as 60’s icon and all round great chap seems rather overrated.
In fact, I think this weakness ties in with his unwillingness to be considered and treated as band leader. Musically, yes, definitely, and immerse yourself in his music. But in all other aspects he preferred to stay on the fence, in the background, and let others take responsibility or action. 

Verdict: read this book if you like the Grateful Dead, the (late) 60’s, West coast pop culture or the origin of the jam band scene, but do not read it if Jerry Garcia is your personal hero or guru and you want to keep it that way.