Monday, August 6, 2012

Tim Price Bloggin' For Rico- Summer reading suggestions.

Here are two excellent books- a very interesting read and very insightful as well. The Music Instinct How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It Philip Ball "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." That statement, which is most often attributed to Elvis Costello, is quoted in this bright, complex and occasionally profound book, and it highlights just what a tricky task the science writer Philip Ball has set himself. Because here, he's trying to examine what music is, how it works and why it exists. It might seem strange to ask the seemingly basic question of what music is, given the ubiquity of it in the world (no human culture has developed without some form of musical expression), yet it is incredibly difficult to define what we mean by music.
The Sunday Times hailed this book as as "a wonderful account of why music matters," with Ball's "passion for music evident on every page." "Organised sound" was one definition proposed by the avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse, but that doesn't quite cover it. As Ball argues, music isn't really created by composers and musicians at all – the real music-making occurs in the listener's brain, in the unbelievably complicated mental processing which can take a collection of vibrations in the air and transform them into something which can make us cry or laugh or tremble, or feel something we simply can't put into words. "Experiencing music is an active affair," writes Ball, "no matter how idly we are listening. If it wasn't, we would not be hearing music at all." Ball takes as his starting point the assertion by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker that music is "auditory cheesecake" – that it developed, in evolutionary terms, only as a by-product of language, and that we now use it simply for gratification. The debate about the evolutionary origins of music rages in academic circles, with every new piece of research announced by ethno- musicologists seeming to contradict the last one. But Ball does a great job of sifting through this mass of data to get to what we really know, as well as, more often than not, what we still don't. The Music Instinct is chock-full of fascinating little questions which Ball, as far as he can, attempts to answer. How do we choose the notes we use in composing, and why? How many of the factors affecting what we like to listen to are innate, and how many are learnt culturally? How are we so good at distinguishing timbre, the rather vague tonal aspect of sound that makes Tom Waits and Ella Fitzgerald singing the same note sound so obviously different? Many of these questions were unanswerable a few years ago, but brain-mapping techniques are beginning to show how much of an interactive process listening to music is. And it seems that the best music is the stuff that challenges us just enough. Overall, this is a truly fascinating and eye-opening account of a phenomenon so commonplace we barely think about it, yet one which is also mind-bogglingly complicated. Once you've read The Music Instinct, you'll never listen to music the same way again.
DUKE ELLINGTON'S AMERICA By Harvey G. Cohen This account of the life and times of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is maddeningly overlong and undeniably valuable. Harvey G. Cohen, an American academic who began his career at the University of Maryland and is now an associate professor of cultural and creative industries at King's College in London, has done prodigious research, much of it as a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress, and has unearthed an astonishing amount of material. All of this lends powerful support to his view that Ellington's high stature derives not just from the music he composed and played but from the remarkable life, both private and public, that he led. Few American artists in any medium have enjoyed the international and lasting cultural impact of Duke Ellington. From jazz standards such as “Mood Indigo” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” to his longer, more orchestral suites, to his leadership of the stellar big band he toured and performed with for decades after most big bands folded, Ellington represented a singular, pathbreaking force in music over the course of a half-century. At the same time, as one of the most prominent black public figures in history, Ellington demonstrated leadership on questions of civil rights, equality, and America’s role in the world. With Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen paints a vivid picture of Ellington’s life and times, taking him from his youth in the black middle class enclave of Washington, D.C., to the heights of worldwide acclaim. Mining extensive archives, many never before available, plus new interviews with Ellington’s friends, family, band members, and business associates, Cohen illuminates his constantly evolving approach to composition, performance, and the music business—as well as issues of race, equality and religion. Ellington’s own voice, meanwhile, animates the book throughout, giving Duke Ellington’s America an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by any previous account. By far the most thorough and nuanced portrait yet of this towering figure, Duke Ellington’s America highlights Ellington’s importance as a figure in American history as well as in American music. I call the book a "study," not a biography, because rather than follow a biographer's trajectory, Cohen has chosen to divide his book into sections that, though they correspond roughly to the evolution of Ellington's life, are principally thematic: the adroit marketing of Ellington by his first manager, Irving Mills; the rise of mass popular culture and Ellington's somewhat ambiguous position within it as both a popular and a serious musician; his endless struggle, after World War II and the collapse of the big bands, to keep his orchestra going so that he could hear his music as soon as he composed it; his rejuvenation at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 and his eventual recognition (by just about everyone except the board of the Pulitzer Prizes, which refused in 1965 to give him a special award) as one of the giants of American culture; his busy and productive later years, in which he concentrated on "Sacred Concerts" and other long pieces. Cohen argues that Ellington's later and mostly longer music ("The Far East Suite," "The Afro Eurasian Eclipse," "The Latin-American Suite") "has aged well, despite its initial lukewarm commercial reception," but only those determined to find gold in every note Ellington composed will be inclined to agree. Though Cohen is right to praise Ellington for refusing to be complacent or to repeat himself -- "he was going forward, he still had plenty to do, creating and improvising something memorable in the moment"-- his yearning to blur and ultimately eradicate the line between jazz and classical music led him down paths for which his gifts were not entirely suited. There may not have been a pretentious bone in his body, but pretension occasionally peeks through in these longer compositions, leaving one yearning for the energy (and the brevity) of "Rockin' in Rhythm" and "Concerto for Cootie." But if Ellington's more ambitious pieces are unlikely to have a lasting presence in American music, "his personal journey," Cohen rightly says in his final paragraph, "communicated just as much about his America and his world as his music. He helped transform his nation's historical cultural landscape as he contributed to creating its musical heritage." More than any other individual and he "provided a key precedent for international critics and audiences to view the music of Americans as serious and lasting, equal to that of Europeans, previously seen as the sole masters." Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical revues. His most extraordinary talent, however, may have been for making the best of tainted opportunities. But even before the band sounded a note it delivered a statement: impeccably dressed in matching tuxedos and boutonnières, its members were of a class with the biggest swells in the room. And Ellington was the swellest of all: unfailingly soigné, magisterially presiding over the urban jungle, he stood untouched and never lost his smile. Duke Ellington loved to say that his music was "beyond category," and so of course was he. FIND THESE TWO BOOKS...READ THEM. Tell a friend about them and support live music in every way you can. Till next week....Tim Price

1 comment:

  1. The Duke rose above it all, the gangsters, the racism etc, etc and with class and a smile. As Duke said, "love you madly".