Book Review

Sep. 9th, 2017 09:18 pm
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
by Christoph Wolff

This was one of the best and most enjoyable composer biographies I have ever read. It is extremely detailed, but Wolff makes the meticulous detail a source of richness rather than an exercise in either pedantry or tedium. Despite the lack of personal correspondence or other such information that history has preserved for us, Wolff also portrays Bach as living, breathing person rather than just an iconic figure, and furthermore, give the modern reader a very good sense of what an 18th century musician's life would be like. The coverage of Bach's development as a composer and musician, and of his professional struggles all were extremely interesting and enlightening. I have more appreciation not only for Bach and his music but also for the whole corpus of Baroque music making.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg
Edited by Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner

As is typical of the Cambridge Companion series, this volume about Arnold Schoenberg was a fascinating and often enjoyable read. Given how central Schoenberg is to modern music and how much existing scholarship there is on him, I was happy to find that this book included a very thoughtful and fresh selection of writings about Schoenberg. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Schoenberg's row tables and how he used them, his piano concerto, and his relationship to modernism and metaphysics.
kenjari: (piano)
Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall
by Steven Moore Whiting

This book covers Satie's involvement with fin-de-siecle popular and avant-garde entertainment as both an audience member and a participant. Whiting pays especial attention to the ways in which cabaret songs and music-hall entertainment influenced Satie's music. It's extremely interesting and really illuminates Satie's compositional process and the inner workings of his music. I especially liked the exploration of Satie's use of quotation and his incorporation of humor in his works.
My only significant criticism of Satie the Bohemian is tha tWhiting's prose, while clear, is rather inert. This has the unfortunate effect of making the book plod along at various points, resulting in a slow and dull reading experience.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

This biography of song collector, ethnomusicologist, and singer Alan Lomax was endlessly fascinating and wonderful to read. This is one of the rare non-fiction books that is as compelling and absorbing as a good novel. Szwed takes an all-encompassing view of Lomax, delving into his beginnings as an assistant to his father's song-collecting, his alliance with progressive causes, the FBI's investigations of him, his sometimes contentious views on the importance of folksong - especially that of African-Americans - to American national identity, and his complex relationships to the worlds of academia and popular culture. The only thing that gets a little shorted is Lomax's personal life and relationships, as Szwed concentrates mainly on Lomax's career.
Although the biography is clearly not a hagiography, it is clear that Szwed admires Lomax and it is hard not to share in that admiration. Whatever Lomax's personal failings, Szwed makes it clear that Lomax was an important figure in the preservation and popularization of American folk music, an ardent promoter of the musicians who played it, and a true believer in its value.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Music in Pacific Island Cultures
by Brian Diettrich, Jane Freeman Moulin, Michael Webb

This volume in the Global Music Series covers music in Melanesia, Micronesia, and French Polynesia, with each of the three authors covering one of the areas. Despite the constant switching among authors, the prose is pretty seamless. The subject matter is fascinating - I started this book knowing nothing about the music of the Pacific Islands and really got into it all over the course of the book. Even though Music in Pacific Island Cultures is by necessity an overview, it still conveyed all the richness and depth of a wide variety of musical cultures and practices.
kenjari: (St. Cecilia)
Music in Mainland Southeast Asia
by Gavin Douglas

Another in the Global Music series, this volume cover the music of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.It's a lot of ground to cover in a short book and Douglas mostly succeeds. He gets the reader familiar with a lot of different kinds of music and the roles they play in their respective societies. However, Douglas also spends a lot of time discussing the political situations and histories of each country and how that relates to music. It was all very interesting, but I could have done with less of this and more discussion of the structures and workings of the music itself.

Book Review

May. 3rd, 2017 09:53 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Intertribal Native American Music in the United States
by John-Carlos Perea

This volume in the Global Music Series was very interesting, and was very effective at taking on huge issues. Perea covers pow-wow music, Native American protest music, and the participation of Native American musicians in jazz. He puts everything in the context of contemporary Native American experience and gives the reader a lot to think about.
kenjari: (piano)
Music in America
by Adelaida Reyes

Another volume in my quest to finish off the Global Music Series, Music In America grapples with the American music scene and what makes music American. Covering American music in around 100 pages is a nigh-impossible task, but Reyes does a great job of conveying the breadth. She touches on folk music, Native American music, jazz, popular music, Broadway musicals, and America's contributions to classical and avant-garde music. Her main themes are the diversity of American music and the underlying unity of those who make it. Unfortunately, Reyes is not left with much space to investigate anything in depth, or to look into the way any of this music works.

Book Review

Apr. 3rd, 2017 09:41 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Music in the Hispanic Caribbean
by Robin Moore

One of the longer books in the Global Music Series, Music in the Hispanic Caribbean covers a lot of ground in a satisfying degree of detail. Moore largely sticks to the music of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. He gives a lot of attention to ways the music of this region was affected by the slave trade and colonization, which puts the music of these three islands into context. The explanations of musical structures and the selections on the accompanying CD worked well together to give the reader a good understanding of how the different forms and genres work and relate to one another.
kenjari: (piano)
Mariachi Music In America
by Daniel Sheehy

This slim volume provided a perfect balance of learning about the music itself and learning about its social and cultural context. I'd heard mariachi music before, but Sheehy's book really opened it all up for me. I particularly liked the time spent on the different kinds of piece found in mariachi repertoire, their forms, and rhythmic characteristics. I also liked the careful examination of the typical instrumentation of a mariachi group and how that evolved over time.
kenjari: (piano)
Music in Mexico
by Alejandro L. Madrid

Another solid entry in Oxford University Press' Global Music series, Music in Mexico is a fascinating look at popular music in Mexico from the early days of the country through to the present. Madrid focuses on regional and transnational aspects of Mexican music genres, particularly the relationship that these genres have with Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in the United States. I also appreciated the way Madrid brought in the contexts of Mexican social and political situations during different decades and eras, and the way he tied in the development of Mexican media.* Finally, I enjoyed learning to parse out and recognize different genres and how they fit into what I would recognize as the typical sounds of Mexican and Latin American music. My only complaint is that the book too often directed the reader to a companion website or to look things up on the web.

*This last point did often result in a certain Wall of Voodoo song going through my head.

Book Review

Mar. 6th, 2017 10:09 pm
kenjari: (piano)
The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss
edited by Charles Youmans

This book of essays on Richard Strauss is extremely well-written and well put together. There is not a lot of biographical information, but that is easily obtained elsewhere. What this volume does have is a series of really insightful examinations of Strauss' career and music. I especially liked the perspectives on Strauss' early works and on thorny topics like the eroticism in his music and his relationships with the Third Reich and the business side of music.
kenjari: (piano)
Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
by Bernard Gendron

This fascinating and extremely well-written book examines the relationship between art, the avant-garde, and popular music from the late 19th century Parisian cabaret scene through the late 20th century New York punk and new wave scene. Along the way, Gendron follows the post-WWI European avant-garde's fascination with jazz and the mechanisms through which rock music gained cultural capital and critical approbation in the late 1960s. I kind of wish Gendron had given a little more attention to the ways race and gender intersected with all of this, but perhaps that really needs a separate book to cover adequately. Nonetheless, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club does a wonderful job of looking at the relationships and tensions between avante-garde art and popular music. I especially enjoyed the exploration of the New York new wave scene, since I am a fan of a lot of music that came out of it.
kenjari: (piano)
The Cambridge Companion To Stravinsky
edited by Jonathan Cross

I suppose it is particularly nerdy to read Cambridge Companions straight through for fun, but I really do enjoy them. This volume provides a nice look at Stravinsky's works from various perspectives: Russian heritage and material, neoclassicism, modernism, serialism, and reception history. The reader thus gets a good overview and Stravinsky's different creative periods, the historical and musical contexts of his work, and the legacy he has left for 21st century music. I especially liked the way a few of the chapters, especially Richard Taruskin's on "Stravinsky and Us" addressed the myths surrounding Stravinsky and the way the composer himself participated in and pushed back against their creation.

Book Review

Feb. 5th, 2017 08:26 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Hamilton: The Revolution
by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter

Hamilton: The Revolution is a combination of libretto and commentary for the hit musical. It is no secret that I'm a huge fan of Hamiilton, so it should be no surprise that I loved reading this book, affectionately dubbed the "Hamiltome" by the show's fans. The musical's text are interspersed with short chapters covering aspects of the show's development and showcasing members of the original cast. Lin-Manuel Miranda also provides annotations to each number's lyrics. It all makes for an enjoyable read and an entertaining glimpse behind the scenes.
kenjari: (piano)
Essays on Music
by Alfred Einstein

This book of essays by musicologist Einstein largely focuses on music of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Einstein, who died in 1952, was an important musicologist of the first half of the 20th century, so these essays are in several ways somewhat old-fashioned. It's obvious that he adheres to both the "great man*" and evolutionary approaches to music history. Thus, I most enjoyed the essays in which he illuminates a more obscure bit of music history, such as the musicological interest of a series of letters by a 17th century Italian friar, or the circumstances which suggest that at the end of his life, Mozart was asked to set a libretto based on The Tempest. Einstein is also quite a good writer, making his prose enjoyable and occasionally witty.


* And I do mean "man". Einstein regrettably shows no real interest in female musicians or composers even when they enter into the stories he is telling. Plus, he does make a pretty sexist parenthetical comment in one of the essays. And this from a man who taught at Smith!

Book Review

Jan. 8th, 2017 08:27 pm
kenjari: (piano)
The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape
by Denise Von Glahn

This deeply interesting book examines the ways that American classical music has responded to American places, and the idea of these American places. Von Glahn looks at pieces and composers both well known (Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Steve Reich) and more obscure (George Bristow, Ferde Grofe, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich). I really like the way von Glahn discusses each piece - her descriptions are vivid with the right balance of technical information. And she deploys the musical examples very well. Especially impressive is the way the delves into the relationships between the music and the places to which each piece refers. She looks at how each piece evokes a place, and at how the pieces show the changes in the way American culture relates to its natural world.

Book Review

Jan. 7th, 2017 07:18 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Music in Korea
by Donna Lee Kwon

This is a more recent book in Oxford's Global Music Series, and it is one of the best in the series. Kwon covers a lot of ground, examining both traditional and popular music from the 18th century through the early 21st. She also provides information on North Korean music, although the book necessarily focuses more on South Korean music. Kwon provides plenty of information and a wealth of exercises and activites, but Music in Korea never feels dense or overstuffed. My only criticism is that several of the activities are more appropriate for a class or study group and are thus awkward for someone working through the material on their own.

As a side note, I am pretty sure that author was a grad student at Wesleyan while I was getting my undergraduate degree there.
kenjari: (piano)
Minimalists
by K. Robert Schwartz

This book is a breezy, almost chatty look at the major minimalist composers, covering Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, with shorter sections on John Adams, Meredith Monk, Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Part. Minimalists is a decent overview and introduction to the genre and its main proponents, however, it doesn't go beyond that. It would be a decent place to start, but there is little depth or analysis here.
kenjari: (piano)
The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America
by Raymond Arsenault

This book is a biography of an event, Marian Anderson's landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was the first large public event held at the Lincoln Memorial, and the choice of location was precipitated by the Daughters of the American Revolution and their racially motivated refusal to let Anderson perform in their Constitution hall, despite the fact that Anderson was one of the most popular and renowned classical singers of the day. Arsenault also provides us with the rest of Anderson's life story as well as an examination of the ways in which the musical world was segregated in the 1930s as background for the 1939 concert.
The Sound of Freedom was extremely interesting. I did not know much about the 1939 concert before, and Arsenault does a great job of portraying the way art and politics converged around it. Arsenault does not mince words or pull punches when discussing the racist policies and practices of pre-war America, which gives the events leading up to the Lincoln Memorial performance more resonance and meaning.

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