Archive for March, 2010

Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volume 1

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

One of my 2010 projects is to read this 4000 page, 5 volume history of Western classical music. It got outstanding reviews when it was published in 2005, and last year it was released as a reasonably-priced set of paperbacks, and when I finally got to browse them in the bookstore I was impressed enough to make the investment in time and money.

I’ve just finished volume 1, which takes us up to 1600, so I’m pretty much on track to finish this year (I figure my pace will go up once I get to the music I’m much more familiar with, about halfway through volume 2). It was very interesting, especially since I didn’t know a lot about the early evolution of classical music already.

Despite the fact that the work as a whole is thousands of pages long, Taruskin clearly intends this to be read front to back as a narrative; it’s not a reference, or even really a textbook. This has many advantages and a few disadvantages. One nice thing (to me) is that it is clearly written with some subjectivity; although of course he is writing a history, the author isn’t afraid to inject his own opinions on occasion, which makes it a much more interesting read than it could be. The biggest disadvantage to me is that it’s not as easy to use as a reference as a textbook would be. If he introduces some new term, it’s not going to be in boldface or set off in a sidebar; if you run into it again later and forget its meaning, you’ll have to flip around looking for its definition (and it’s not always in the index). This was a real issue for me in this volume because I’m unfamiliar with most pre-1700 musical jargon. On the other hand, I’m reading it for pleasure, not so I can pass an exam, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

He makes a big point about this actually being a history of written music, which is very different from being a history of music; we really don’t know a lot about pre-literate performance, or even a ton about the performance of the works we have scores of. And of course a lot of written music has been lost, or even intentionally destroyed (grr). So it was neat to read about the ways in which we have to piece together knowledge about what music was really like during this period.

The material itself I found really interesting. I wish I got a slightly better sense of the evolution of certain musical vocabulary from a more theoretical point of view. For example, somewhere during the hundreds of years covered by this book, harmony gradually changed from being mostly just a succession of consonances into having semantic meaning on a more “sentence-sized” level. Taruskin points to some individual examples of this, but I found myself wishing for a higher-level overview of how the shift occurred. Of course, the individual composers who made this shift happen probably didn’t think about it that way at all, so any attempt to impose some sort of teleological post-facto history on it is going to be pretty artificial anyway.

In any case, so far the series has been very entertaining and informative, and I’m not regretting my time spent with it at all. On to Monteverdi!

Michal Ajvaz: The Other City

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

This is a short Czech novel from 1993 that just got translated into English last year and showed up on lots of SF/weird readers’ 2009 best-of lists. The genre is magic realism, which is to say highly-literate fantasy that takes place in the real world. The narrator (I don’t think he ever gets a name) starts discovering clues to an alternate fantastic city that exists in parallel to Prague (shades of China MiĆ©ville’s The City & the City). And this other city really is fantastic, full of arresting poetic images that don’t make much rational sense.

Those images, at their best, are really gripping and memorable — two scenes that come to mind are a fight to the death with a shark on top of a tower and a bushwhacking expedition through a library-jungle — but just as often seem more random, as if the author was picking words from a dictionary and then trying to connect them in some sort of Oulipian manner:

“Of course it was all in vain, you fool,” she said disdainfully. You purged geometry of polar animals… You’ve forgotten that the first axiom of Euclid states that there will always be one or two penguins in geometrical space? Wasn’t it you who tattooed that sentence on my thigh in your automobile of ice? […] You turned us against you when we discovered you on the lavatory squeezing oranges onto a pocket calculator. We don’t like you and find you ridiculous.”

Which rather than making me savor each crazy image makes me just skim until I can find something that makes a little sense again.

So although there are some reoccurring images and themes that do give the book some structure, I sometimes had the same experience I have with David Lynch movies, where, after a bit of seeming to have some strange internal logic that is tantalizingly just beyond the reach of my rational mind, the work just goes off the rails entirely. It was short enough and cool enough that I am perfectly happy with the time I spent with it, but overall for me it didn’t fulfill that top-ten promise it started out with.