When your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote

I was out of town and otherwise occupied last week, which meant that I missed Ethen Iverson’s reading list. His list of jazz books is now added to my own to-do list, seeing as how I’ve only managed about half of those. His classical list is also superb—I would also, off the top of my head (and avoiding biographies, as Ethan did), add Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death (probably my favorite book on opera); Schoenberg’s Style and Idea collection (what can I say, I find Arnold good company); Pierre Bernac’s The Interpretation of French Song (dazzlingly deep, even if you disagree with it it, it’s the one book you have to specifically disagree with); and Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective (it seems like it should get old, yet it never, never does). Irwin Bazelon’s film music book (which Ethan mentions) is excellent and in-depth, but I find it kind of curiously bitchy regarding genre films; Christopher Palmer’s more fanboy-ish but, in its own way, equally thorough The Composer in Hollywood is, I find, a nice balance. And I was mildly surprised that the original Pitchfork list that inspired this exercise neglected Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Awopbamboom, still my favorite book on rock and roll, though to list it is to, admittedly, be forced to acknowledge that rock had pretty much run its course by the late 60s.

But I’m coming pretty late to this game, so I thought I’d mix it up a little. So, instead of music books, here’s a list (again, off the top of my head) of five books that aren’t about music but still, nonetheless, changed my musical thinking, directly or obliquely.

  • Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. History that not only gives proper due to the minutiae of great historical endeavors, but knows and illustrates that such details are utterly inseparable from the prevailing historical context, even when the people involved are tunnel-vision unaware of that context—a notion permanently embedded in my view of music. Also: a demonstration of the poetic capacity of explaining even the most arcane technical niceties.

  • Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes. I enjoyed this book long before I actually understood what Wills was doing with it. It’s not only about Nixon, but about the entire period of American history leading up to his presidency; Wills spends lots of time deconstructing and dismantling one book or study of that history after another. After enough time, I’ve realized that any book will yield contradictions if you make enough incisions in it, but that’s Wills’ point, I think: American history is best understood by laying its contradictions bare. It’s an idea that has served me well in getting my head around a piece of music on too many occasions to count.

  • Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française. Really, anything by Michelet—any of the volumes of his Histoire de France, any of his quirky studies on various aspects of human nature and behavior. If you have the time, struggling (as I do) with a French dictionary handy is advisable—English translations of Michelet tend to be old, somewhat clunky, and incomplete. But even such second-hand Michelet is worth it—there’s nobody quite like him for breadth, for structure, for pacing. The most symphonic historian of all time.

  • Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. Adams had issues, to be sure—he was self-pitying, he was almost comically pessimistic, he was irrationally anti-Semitic (though more in real life than in his books). But he was, I think, the greatest American prose stylist of the 19th century. All of Adams is worth reading, but the History is Adams at his best—casually magisterial, intricately witty. To read Adams is to understand the relationship between complexity and freedom—the full Victorian profusion of his sentence structure, and his mastery of it, allows him to place the key point of each idea wherever he wants. He can lead with it; he can end with it; he can use it as a fulcrum between phrases, between clauses, between qualifications and demurrals. And, as a result, when Adams does drop in an utterance of Hemingway-esque pithiness, it jabs harder than Hemingway ever did. If you’ve ever wondered why my own sentences tend towards the convoluted, or why I harbor what might seem to be an inexplicable fondness for music others might consider dense and difficult, a big part of it is that my education included Adams’ Education.

  • Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum. At first, I was going to go with The Role of the Reader, my favorite collection of Eco’s semiotic texts, but I think his novel has more deeply embedded itself into my musical thinking, particularly because I’m so obsessed with Romanticism and its continuing hangover. Eco makes black comedy out of the tendency of the myth to take on a life of its own, a mechanism that has not only become prevalent in music (not just classical) since the 1800s, but has pretty much driven it. The first step of coming to terms with post-Beethoven music history is to be able to simultaneously acknowledge both myth’s fictional status and its palpable, almost indelible persistence.
P.S. Yes, this is the second time I have gone to that particular Elvis Costello well for a post title. It’s not just books that take up permanent residence in what might otherwise be useful parts of my brain.

One comment

  1. I must say, these are not exactly beach books, are they? But I've bookmarked this, if nothing else, for your savory comments on non-musical books that influenced your music thinking: on Michelet as “The most symphonic historian of all time.” Makes me wish I had passable French.

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