Category Archives: Books

Conversations on music

When people from different disciplines interact and engage in dialogue, novel and stimulating perspectives often emerge. This is the case with the following fascinating exchanges between world-class musicians and prominent representatives from other fields, who also happen to share a deep passion and interest in music.

Haruki Murakami – Seiji Ozawa: The writer and the conductor

An ex-owner of a small jazz bar in Tokyo, Murakami is known for his love and appreciation of music, which is evident throughout his oeuvre. In Absolutely on Music (2011), he exchanges views with acclaimed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa on a variety of topics, ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to opera, Chicago blues, and the joys of teaching.

These conversations, dating from 2010 – 2011, unravel while the two men listen to various recordings from Murakami’s record collection and exchange views on various artists and music genres. They offer a unique insight into Ozawa’s approach to conducting, memories of his mentors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, was well as his educational activities and work with the prestigious Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Moreover, Murakami provides some very interesting remarks about the relationship between writing and music. “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music”, he says, referring to his own beginnings as a writer:  “How did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Edward Said – Daniel Barenboim: The intellectual and the maestro

A highly compelling exchange between cultural critic Edward Said and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002) features conversations between the two men centered on music, but touching upon many themes such as the nature of sound, religion, antisemitism, politics and identity.

Full of captivating ideas and insights, the book offers a glimpse of the two men’s philosophical pondering and the great significance they attribute to music. For Said, “music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything”, while Barenboim, who subscribes to Ferruccio Busoni’s definition of music as “sonorous air”, says: “Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God.”

In 1999,  Barenboim and Said (who was an accomplished pianist) founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra consisting of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians, with the aim to promote understanding and enable intercultural dialogue. As Barenboim has put it: “The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it.”

Bruno Monsaingeon – Glenn Gould: The director and the virtuoso

French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon has made several documentaries about prominent musicians, while his interviews with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter and French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger have also been published separately as books (Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, and Mademoiselle: Conversations With Nadia Boulanger, respectively).

One of the artists that most fascinated Monsaingeon was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. On hearing Gould performing J.S. Bach for the first time, Monsaingeon later wrote: I don’t think I was less inflamed that night than Blaise Pascal during his night of fire. “Joy, joy, tears of joy!!!” In July 1972, Monsaingeon traveled to Toronto to meet Gould, who by then had already stopped giving public recitals. The two would develop a lasting friendship and work on various projects that included the films Glenn Gould, the Alchemist (1974) and Glenn Gould, hereafter (2006).

A conversation between Gould and Monsaingeon is included in The Glenn Gould Reader (ed. Tim Page, 1984), a compilation of Gould’s writings that offers an abundance of original and highly unconventional ideas with regards to performance and music making. When Monsaingeon asks Gould  why he doesn’t want to record Mozart’s concertos, he replies: “Well, you see, Bruno, I don’t really enjoy playing any concertos very much. What bothers me most is the competitive, comparative ambience in which the the concerto operates. I happen to believe that competition rather than money is the root of all evil, and in the concerto we have a perfect musical analogy of the competitive spirit.”

Brimming with thought-provoking and stimulating remarks, Gould’s words were as unique as the notes he played. Whether one agrees with him or not, there’s little doubt he had some very interesting, and often profound, things to say – both on paper and at the piano.

Going underground behind the Iron Curtain

I recently came across the very interesting book “X-Ray Audio” – The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone by Stephen Coates. Focusing on the underground culture of Roentgenizdat, also known as “music on ribs” or “jazz on bones”, it tells the fascinating story of bootleg and pirated X-ray music discs that were circulated illegally in Soviet Russia during the immediate post-war era through the 1960s.

Made from medical X-rays that were subsequently cut into 7-inch discs with the aid of special machines, these discs featured music by officially censored artists such as the “King of Russian Tango” Pyotr Leshchenko or Western jazz and rock’n’roll musicians like Bill Haley, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles.

A sort of musical parallel to the samizdat (the underground publication and distribution of dissident literature), the history of these Soviet bone discs is truly incredible as well as illuminating: it reveals how far people were willing to go in order to obtain, enjoy and share the forbidden fruit of inaccessible music. The risks involved were serious: Sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslovsky (1928-2005), a true hero of Soviet underground record production, was sent to prison camps no less than three times throughout his life for cutting Western music onto records that originally contained speeches of Soviet leaders.

Eventually the X-ray record production was eclipsed by the emergence of reel-to-reel tape recorders which became available in the early 1960s and soon grew enormously popular. This in turn sparked the process known as magnitizdat, i.e. the re-copying and self-distribution of audio tape recordings that were not available commercially. According to leading Russian music journalist and critic Artemy Troitsky, “the overall quantity of X-ray records ever produced in the Soviet times would not exceed a million, whereas with reel-to-reel tapes we would be talking about tens if not hundreds of millions.”

In his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (first published in 1987, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union), Troitsky provides a compelling account of the evolution of the Soviet rock scene since its birth in the 1960s. An insider, Troitsky offers an abundance of first-hand information and anecdotes related to the foremost Soviet rock musicians and groups that are little, if at all, known in the West, such as Time Machine (the “Russian Beatles”) and their founder Andrey Makarevich, Aquarium and their leader Boris Grebenshchikov, guitarist Alexander Lyapin (“closer to Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist”), or the iconic post-punk band Kino and their singer Viktor Tsoi.

Starting with the crucial influence of The Beatles on the genesis of Soviet rock, Troitsky goes on to describe key events, places and moments of its history, such as  the hippie gatherings in Tallin and Crimea (“something of a Soviet California”), the Leningrad and Moscow scenes, the “intense though fairly isolated” rock culture of Estonia, the 1980 Tbilisi festival, the emergence of home-made albums in the early 1980s, and the “Account 904” concert (organized in 1986 by Troitsky and others to raise funds for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).

Troitsky’s commentary is at times both funny (“punk rock with us is something exotic, like an avocado – everyone has heard the name, but very few know what it actually is”) and penetrating: “Meanwhile, nothing at all was happening in Lithuania (…) nothing, that is, if we don’t count having the best jazz and the prettiest girls in the country. Perhaps these circumstances hindered the development of rock music there.”

Apart from its purely historical value, Troitsky’s account also offers some stimulating remarks on the nature of Russian culture and its differences from the West. For example, he writes: “[T]he purely literary level of our rock lyrics is higher, on the average, than in the West. Rock lyrics here have a direct tie to our poetic tradition and reflect its lexical and stylistic heritage.” I find this assertion particularly interesting in the light of the recent Nobel award to Bob Dylan and the related discussion on the relationship between music and literature.

Troitsky’s book closes with a somewhat disheartening remark: “[T]oo few rock bands dare to test glasnost (…) And this is sad. It seems that the long-awaited sunlight has blinded most of the creatures crawling out of the underground.” Thirty years on, the Iron Curtain having long been lifted, the question of cultural and political dissent remains as urgent as ever, both in Russia and the rest of the world. And music can play a crucial role in this respect. As cultural critic Edward Said once put it: “Music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.”

A Nobel Prize for music

Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.

What is literature?

Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).

To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:

The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.

Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.

But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.

The music of words

Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.

music_literature

There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.

Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?

By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).

Dylan, wearing a hat and leather coat, plays guitar and sings, seated. Crouched next to him is a bearded man, listening to him with head bent.

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman

After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.

Songs and books

This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.

First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.

Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.

So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.

Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.

Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.

The seasons they are a changin’

Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.

Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.

As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.

I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.

As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.

photo

Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:

People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.

The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”

Real magic

While reading a collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), known as the “father of the Japanese short story”, I came across the following passage (it’s taken from his autobiographical story The Life of a Stupid Man, translated by Jay Rubin):

He suffered an onslaught of insomnia. His physical strength began to fade as well. (…) But he knew well enough what was wrong with him: he was ashamed of himself and afraid of them – afraid of the society he so despised.

One afternoon when snow clouds hung over the city, he was in the corner of a café, smoking a cigar and listening to music from the gramophone on the other side of the room. He found the music permeating his emotions in a strange new way. When it ended, he walked over to the gramophone to read the label on the record.

Magic Flute – Mozart.”

All at once it became clear to him: Mozart too had broken the Ten Commandments and suffered. Probably not the way he had, but…

He bowed his head and returned to his table in silence.

I found this passage particularly powerful, as it manages to convey very elegantly one of music’s most intriguing characteristics: its universality, that is, its ability to reach straight into the hearts of people who lived under completely different social conditions and many hundreds years apart, forging a bond between all those who feel our common humanity through works such as Mozart’s sublime opera.

And that is some real magic indeed.

White bicycles: Music making in the 1960s

A short history of the sixties

“The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.” 

For anyone interested in the cultural and music developments of the 1960s, Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s is a must read (the book title refers to the 1967 song My White Bicycle by Tomorrow, which was about Amsterdam’s community bicycle program). Full of incredible anecdotes as well as precious insights, it highlights less-known aspects of the 1960s music business and its protagonists.

Boyd was a key figure himself. As a tour manager he organized concerts for artists like Muddy Waters, Stan Getz and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He was also responsible for the sound at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan confronted the audience with his controversial electric set. Furthermore, he went on to become a successful record producer, working with bands such as Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd.

From blues to folk and beyond

In his book, Boyd describes the blues boom of the sixties and its increasing appeal to white audiences, which marked “the end of the natural life of the form.” As he puts it: “No white person in America in 1964 – with the exception of me and my friends, of course – knew who John Lee Hooker was.”

He goes on to chronicle landmark events such as the Newport Festivals between 1963 and 1965, which saw the rise of Bob Dylan as Woody Guthrie’s heir and his subsequent turn from political song to a “decadent, self-absorbed, brilliant internal life.” Boyd is even willing to provide the exact time slot of this major shift: “Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965.”

Revolution and disillusionment

Moving on to the cultural scene amidst swinging London, Boyd recalls: “In 1966 the world was changing by the week. (…) Soho that year was like the steppes in AD350, with Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns queuing up to pillage, destabilize and eventually take over the Roman Empire.” There is no doubt for the prominent role of the English capital: “New York would never have moulded Hendrix’s genius into as powerful a pop persona as London did.”

Boyd describes the music of the early Pink Floyd as “the soundtrack for the Underground” and likens the choruses of Syd Barrett’s songs to “fertile planets in a void of spaced-out improvisation.” For him, one of the most enduring images of the whole era was that of “the four Floyds bent together over their instruments in concentration while purple and turquoise bubbles of light play over them.”

As for the unprecedented commercial success that followed in the post-Barrett era: “Pink Floyd’s success is difficult to analyse or explain. What they brought with them from Cambridge was all their own; London in 1967 just happened to fall in love with it first.”

Parallel to the music-driven narrative in White Bicycles, Boyd also illustrates vividly the optimism, idealism and progressive tendencies of the time: “Despite differing notions of what the revolution was about, an atmosphere of agape was pervasive in 1967: people were fundamentally quite nice to each other. (…) What London witnessed in the spring of ’67 was more than an endorsement of a new musical style, it was a mass immersion in the sub-culture that gave rise to it.”

Interestingly, he is also careful to demonstrate the other, darker side of this eventful period: “Beneath the surface, the progressive sixties hid all manner of unpleasantness: sexism, reaction, racism and factionalism. (…) The agape spirit of ’67 evaporated in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure. In Amsterdam, people started sealing and repainting the white bicycles.”

In conclusion, Boyd’s White Bicycles makes for some fascinating reading. Next to the impressive parade of (more or less) famous musicians featured in its pages, the author also refers in passing to a variety of topics from Cuban music to the downsides of digital recording. Personally, I found extremely valuable the abundance of references to artists and recordings I had never heard of before, and enjoyed greatly reading about the background stories to some of the best music ever made (as in the chapters on Nick Drake, which are particularly rewarding).

Art under a cloudy sky

Although cloud watching seems to be reaching ever-higher levels of popularity nowadays, this noble activity has been a favorite pastime of sensitive and artistically inclined individuals long before the advent of modern photographic techniques.

In his nocturnal composition Nuages (“Clouds”), Claude Debussy tried to capture “the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.

Debussy’s visual, descriptive language brings to mind impressionistic images of similar themes. Conversely, painters would also use music as a way to better illustrate the effects of their own art. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “…in a picture I want to say something comforting, in the way that music is comforting.”

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Wheat Field Under Cloudy Sky’ (Oil on canvas, 1890)

A somewhat darker, and at times even disturbing, vision arises in some of Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpieces, such as Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985). Here, the depiction of imposing cloud formations serves as a symbol for the futility and the ephemeral status of human affairs, signifying the tragic dimensions of man’s passing from this world.

Ran-stills

Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985)

In the dedication of Paris Spleen, one of the founding texts of literary modernism, Charles Baudelaire had dreamed “of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme” that could “adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.”

In the opening piece, L’étranger (“The Stranger”), Baudelaire’s enigmatic figure rejects received truths, certainties and conventions, retaining faith only to one’s self and the beauty of passing clouds…

“Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

Your friends? Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.

Your country? I do not know in what latitude it lies.

Beauty? I could indeed lover her, Goddess and Immortal.

Gold? I hate it as you hate God.

Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!”