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Perri Knize: Grand Obsession

I recently spent a fair amount of time and energy researching a piano purchase, and as I had always concentrated more on the notes than on the instrument making them, it was very educational both to listen closely to a bunch of pianos and to read about differences in construction, tone, action, etc. After all that, Grand Obsession looked interesting; it’s a work of non-fiction about piano manufacture and maintenance (such as all the work that is done on the feel of the physical mechanism, the tuning, and the tone of the sound), wrapped in a personal story about the author’s quest to find the perfect piano and then get the perfect tone on it.

The information on the piano industry was pretty much all very interesting. Knize got to have in-depth conversations with lots of different sorts of people—manufacturers, dealers, tuners, voicers, other players—and I learned a lot from them. There is one chapter on “physics” with exciting updates on topics like “vibrational healing” and the fact that apparently string theory implies that each of us has a fundamental frequency that our “cellular structures respond to”, but I am going to be charitable and just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

The framing story was more problematic for me. The author spends over a year traveling over the whole country in a quest for the sole piano (within her budget) that she can possibly stand the sound of, and then spends a few more years obsessively trying to get it to sound tolerable to her ears after it arrives with a tone that she doesn’t like. The following passage, after an episode replacing the hammers, is representative:

Something is dreadfully wrong with the piano. It sounds horrible. Strident. Harsh. Too much sound pouring from the belly, sound that clashes against itself until it turns into a storm of dissonance that whips itself into a furious tornado of ringing tones that actually hurt my ears. (p. 217)

The reader is constantly reminded of how exquisitely sensitive Knize’s ears are, to the point that I wonder how she can enjoy listening to 90% of piano recordings out there. I don’t doubt that she does have sensitive hearing, but it feels to me like a drawback, like being a supertaster is for many people, rather than a feature. The capper for me is that she (at least during the time that the book covers) is not a very accomplished pianist; the repertoire that she describes learning is pretty basic. It’s actually a little sad to me how much time she spends trying to optimize her piano that could be spent playing it instead. The book reads a bit to me like the story of a someone who decided to write a novel and then immediately spent two years searching for the perfect font.

In the end, I learned to pay attention to the parts that interested me and skim over the parts that bugged me, so I don’t regret reading it, and if she had been less obsessed with finding the perfect sound, she probably wouldn’t have been inspired to write it in the first place. By the end, though, I was ready to move on to an authorial voice I could empathize with a bit more.

Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volumes 2-5

I wrote about volume 1 of Richard Taruskin’s history of Western music a couple of years ago. Although I finished volume 2 shortly thereafter, I never got around to writing about it, and then I stalled on the whole thing early into volume 3 until this year, when I got motivated again and ended up tearing through the rest of it in the space of a month.

See my old post for opinions on his style in general, which I haven’t really changed my mind about. One big difference is that once he got to the year 1700 or so, I was suddenly about 80% familiar with the music being described rather than 10%. You may question the wisdom of reading 2000 pages of material on a subject that I already knew pretty well, but it was actually quite nice; it’s fun to nod sagely in approval as the author declaims to readers things that you already know, and having the context of that 80% made me appreciate the remaining 20% more than I otherwise would. I also knew the repertoire a lot better than the history, so it was nice to get a sense of the connective tissue that lies between all of those individual works.

Taruskin tells a good story, and he is pretty good at not falling prey to the temptation in a history book to divide everything very neatly into discrete boxes. In fact he takes great pains to blur the traditionally stark lines between Baroque and Classical music (in the mid 18th century) and tonal and atonal music (in the early 20th century), showing that there was much more of a continuum at the time than often appears in retrospect.

One particularly interesting take was his assertion that modern music really began in the mid-1800s, not in the early 1900s where most people put the dividing line (when traditional tonality was dissolving). His point is that it was the mid-1800s when music criticism became established, one consequence of which being that composers and listeners started to think of historical progress in music, with composers having some sort of scientist-like responsibility, against which they can be evaluated, to push the boundaries of music forward. It’s that change in perception that to Taruskin really marks the beginning of the modern attitude towards composition.

As I said, there was a fair amount of material I wasn’t really familiar with, so it was nice to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of musical history, such as the development of Italian opera and early Russian and East European music. I feel like I much have a better bird’s-eye view of the developments of classical music over the last few centuries now.

Taruskin continually warns against the temptation to treat music history in a teleological way, in which music composition “makes progress” over time as composers invent and discover more advanced and “better” techniques. But I felt like he falls victim to the same trap a bit when he enters the 20th century. There is very little attention paid to some very fine 20th century composers, presumably because they don’t fit his forward-pointing narrative. Sibelius gets a couple of pages. Nielsen gets one sentence. To take a few examples of superb recent composers who have created lots of important work, Nancarrow, Lutosławski, and Nørgård are not mentioned at all. On the other hand, Roy Harris gets 13 pages (maybe he was considered a lot more important at the time than he is in retrospect, but still, it’s weird) and David Del Tredici gets 7. (There’s a general American slant to Taruskin’s 20th-century history that he acknowledges but claims to be based in fact.) Especially given that the last volume is shorter than the others by 200 pages, you’d think that he could have found room for a couple of chapters surveying some of these important composers that didn’t fit so neatly into his narrative.

Despite my issues with what he chooses to concentrate on in the 20th century, I did find the material that he did write about very interesting and thought-provoking. I think that his take on who-cares-if-you-listen complexity vs more traditionally audience-oriented music is pretty fair, although I understand why those of the complexity school (especially if you have been raised with the music-history-as-progress meme) might not think so.

I should also mention that the whole thing, all 3800+ pages of it, is also a great read. It’s not dry at all, and Taruskin occupies just the right position on the facts-vs-opinions spectrum to keep things interesting but still grounded. Not only did I learn a lot, I also enjoyed it very much and was sad when I ran out of history to read about.

Evan Dara: The Lost Scrapbook

Another one of those long difficult books that I bought on principle and then let languish on my bookshelf for a decade (literally; I just went to Amazon to see what the reader reviews were like and it informed me that I had bought this from them in 1999). Like many Gaddis books, it consists almost entirely of unattributed dialogue, although in this case much of it is more like monologue, as (unnamed) people recount occurrences that have happened to them.

Adding to the difficulty, the book consists largely of “scenes” that have nothing at all to do with each other, at least overtly; also, there are no breaks between scenes, even by starting a new paragraph, and in fact a scene/speaker change can sometimes happen in the middle of a sentence. (I say “sentence” even though there is only one period in the whole book; all other sentences are demarcated instead with semicolons; or ellipses… or occasionally both;… you can imagine that this can get a bit wearying).

So basically it’s a big collage, and when you approach it that way it’s actually pretty interesting. The individual stories that make up the “novel” (I feel a little funny calling it that) are generally quite compelling, even in their fragmented form, and about 60% of the way through the book the granularity of the collage changes, so that instead of getting ten pages at a time of different stories, you get one paragraph or even just one sentence at a time, but of the same basic story. This technique, in which a plot plays out just by reeling out hundreds of unattributed sentences relaying people’s varying reactions to off-screen events, is really cool and fairly gripping.

I was expecting all the threads of the book to tie together in the end, but I had to be satisfied with some loose inter-story connections and a well-earned climax to the eventual main plot. It turns out to be a book more about establishing a mood and way of looking at things in the reader than about a plot, which is fine. At close to 500 pages, you’d think it would take months to get through, but it’s actually a pretty quick read, largely because the writing of the individual scenes is very compelling. I was glad to move on to a more normal book when I finished it, but it was a really interesting reading experience that I’m glad to have had.

Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

So I have gotten really interested in jazz over the last year. (Apparently this is de rigueur for men as they enter middle age.) I’ve always had a vague understanding of the musical syntax, and can fake playing cocktail-piano renditions of standards okay, but I’ve never really had a good knowledge of the field as a whole.

My three-pronged approach to remedying this has been 1) reading about jazz theory (largely through Bert Ligon’s Jazz Theory Resources and Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book, about which maybe more later), 2) reading about jazz history, and 3) listening to a ton of music. Reading this book, unsurprisingly, was part of prong 2.

Any book about music starts out at a disadvantage in that the actual subject it is discussing is apprehended by the ear and not the eye. With classical music, at least the score is the definition of the piece, but with popular music even a transcription is just a lens that inherently distorts the subject. The History of Jazz doesn’t even try to display musical excerpts; it’s purely text, and although the text is fairly descriptive, simply reading about the music is completely insufficient if you want to understand anything about its history.

Luckily YouTube is around to fill in the gap. I don’t know how much less I would have gotten out of this book if all I could do was read it, but being able to immediately reach out and listen to 80% of the referred-to repertoire was completely invaluable.

Anyway, the actual book itself. Given that it could only really describe the music at one level of indirection, it was actually really instructive. Jazz, especially once you get to the 1950s, consists of a giant interconnected family tree of artists and styles, and it was really impressive to me that Gioia was able to construct a fairly reasonable linear narrative navigating the entire maze, jumping on to an artist’s path for a few years, taking a couple of detours to describe his peers, and coming back to him later when his subsequent style was more relevant to the current story.

The music that I am most interested in (bebop and its descendants) doesn’t even enter the picture until halfway through the book, but that’s probably unavoidable, and the material on early jazz is really interesting. It hadn’t really occurred to me, for example, how impossible it is to disentangle jazz’s roots from the effects of slavery, which turns the love of jazz into an inherently ambivalent kind of prospect. (Another downer is that everyone seems to die young; if they make it past 40 it’s kind of surprising. I swear that being a jazz musician is more dangerous than coal mining.)

If you’re looking for a 400-page overview of the entire giant field of jazz (up through the mid-1990s), I bet it’s hard to do much better than this. It certainly gave me a broad bird’s-eye view of the genre that enabled me to focus on the artists and periods I thought I would be interested in, and when I came back to it after learning more about a given subject, its summary still seemed pretty good to me. Supplement it with YouTube and you’ve got a perfect multimedia introduction to the genre.

Daniel Abraham: The Price of Spring

This is the fourth and final volume of the Long Price Quartet fantasy series, of which I have previously reviewed the first three volumes. Basically everything I said about the other books continues to hold true; it’s totally character-driven (almost all plot developments occur because someone acted or reacted in a manner wholly consistent with their personality) in a really nice way. The life paths of the two major characters continue to diverge (and it’s now 45 years since the series started), with the marked difference in their fortunes simultaneously being no one’s fault (good/bad luck) and totally their fault (it is the result of their decisions and actions). The plot is very well done, and brings the series to a conclusion with a fitting climax, but is almost secondary to the exploration of how these characters ended up as they did. I actually found books 2 and 3 to be the most successful (as with book 3, I though there was a slight sag between the point where you can see what the denouement is going to be and when it actually occurs), but that’s to praise this one with faint damnation. The whole series is great, and is a really nice demonstration of what you can do in the wide genre of “fantasy” without feeling the need to go down the whole elves-and-knights epic fantasy route.

Of course, the series didn’t end up selling that well (Tor didn’t even release this fourth volume in paperback, so I recommend you pick up the 2 UK omnibi, titled Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War), and perhaps in response, Abraham has recently released the first volume, The Dragon’s Path, of his new series — which is epic fantasy. It kind of feels like a retreat, but I’m sure it’ll be great (though I’ll probably wait until I can read it all at once).

Steven Erikson: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

I’ve already posted about the first three books of Steven Erikson’s mammoth epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen [1] [2] [3], but I’ve finished the series in the meantime and if I try to write one post each about the remaining seven, I’ll never get anything else done. So I’m going to rush through the rest and see if I have anything interesting to say about any of them.

IV. House of Chains. The “I can’t believe how epic this series is” moment of this one comes when, in contrast to the usual bouncing back and forth between viewpoint characters, the entire first quarter of the novel is devoted to telling the back story of a single character who so far has only briefly appeared in book two and didn’t even have a name then. (Naturally, he turns out to be one of the more important characters in the series.) Once we get back to the main cast of characters, things move along at a good clip, and it ends with a very effective resolution of one of the main plot lines of the first four books, with a couple of cliffhangers added, including one fairly new character saying that he’s going to tell his backstory…

V. Midnight Tides. Which is this book, my favorite of the series and many people’s least. Once again Erikson starts completely from scratch, with what is effectively a prequel on an entirely new continent featuring an entirely new cast of characters, which I think annoyed a bunch of people who were on tenterhooks waiting to get resolution for the things left hanging from House of Chains. This is actually a fairly self-contained story (I might even argue that it’s the best starting point for the series as a whole) which is much tighter and less sprawling than most of the other books. There’s some Wodehousian humor (the best yet), some horror, some allegorical social commentary, and some great plot twists. A big success, in my opinion.

VI. The Bonehunters. As we begin the second half of the series, events begin to converge a bit instead of just expand, which makes it just a bit less compelling for me. A lot of this book is setup for the rest of the series. There are some highlights, like an awesome single-gigantic-chapter set piece featuring a city on fire, but by the time we get to the last over-the-top set piece (in Malaz City, which we had not visited since the prologue to the first book), I was a little exhausted.

VII. Reaper’s Gale. Here the II-IV-VI and V plots start to converge a bit. I liked the political stuff that carried over from Midnight Tides the most (though, as before, I seem to be in the slight minority here) but an issue that started in the last book continues here: the book gets clogged up with frequent long sections that are basically character studies illustrating the boredom/terror of dozens of individual soldiers. It’s a valid artistic decision, but I felt that those sections could have been pared down a bit. It doesn’t help that a gigantic climax is promised from page 1 (basically, there is to be a showdown between the three biggest badasses in the world) and held tantalizingly out of the readers’ reach until the very end. Still, there is a lot of good stuff here, especially with a plot thread dealing with an entirely new civilization (as usual, I am most excited when stuff keeps expanding).

VIII. Toll the Hounds. And we’re back to the I-III strand! This is a bit of a weird one, as Erikson suddenly goes full-out Dickens. He’s always examined different strata of society, one thing that makes the books’ scope so great, but here I feel him straining to explicitly include all the different groups he can (and, unlike Dickens, the strata reach all the way up to those of the gods!), and there is a ton of authorial intrusion (although under the guise of an in-world character) directing us to cogitate upon all that is being presented to us. That didn’t totally work for me, but there is a lot of great plot and character development, although also a fair amount of getting characters from point A to point B (a general issue throughout the series). There is a pretty excellent “What the hell just happened?” point near the end, which however could have been explained a little better (another general issue).

IX. Dust of Dreams. Now we’re really in the home stretch; this is explicitly part one of a two-part finale. It continues to suffer from the Unending Soldier Character Studies issue from VI/VII, and in general things feel slightly overstuffed, as if Erikson had 1.5 books worth of material and expanded them to two instead of contracting them to one. One (sentient) species that had previously mostly just been alluded to finally takes center stage, which is a nice payoff, In a very Eriksonian moment, one large storyline is launched and comes crashing down all within one book, which some people find a complete waste but I consider to be generally a positive thing, proving that anything can happen to anyone at any time in this world.

X. The Crippled God. And so we reach the end. I probably need to read this again to form a good unbiased opinion of it, but I’m not sure if I ever will, so I’m going to have to go with what I got. It is a good page turner, though I do have some issues with it; for one thing, the main Big Bad, which could have been drawn in some interesting shades of gray (which Erikson does very well in other contexts throughout the series), is not really explored in any interesting way. Although a lot of long plot arcs converge and are resolved in this book, it becomes clear by the halfway point that it’s not going to epically resolve every last thread of the entire series in an narratively orgasmic climax; the story is huge but it’s just one more story. So at the end the series basically is the sum of its parts, rather than transcending them. That’s okay; the parts are pretty great. But if you’re slogging through hoping for some gigantic payoff that will make everything that came before amazing in retrospect, you will likely be disappointed. When I was at the series’ halfway point, I was hoping that I would get to the end and immediately want to start again at the beginning to pick up all the subtleties I had missed the first time around, and that’s not going to happen; but it was a pretty excellent ride.

What’s wrong with this sentence?

“The federal [student] loans are a good deal, but they are often not enough [to] make up the difference between what a family has saved or can spend out of current income and what the student gets in grants and scholarship money.”

[from the New York Times article A New Type of Student Loan, but Still a Risk]

A gripe about chess annotations

More and more these days, analysis of chess games relies on chess engines (playing programs), whether to come up with ideas or just to double-check the human annotator’s calculations. That is not my gripe; computer analysis is just a fact of life these days. My gripe is that the people who are writing the analyses and using the computer programs are oddly reluctant to actually name them. Instead of saying “Rybka suggests 25.Nxf6” or “Fritz thinks this is now a draw”, they’ll simply refer to “the computer”, e.g., “The computer has a brilliant idea here”. As a software programmer, it really bugs me that the creators of these programs, of which there are dozens with highly individual characteristics, don’t get any credit for their work, as if chess engines (which require an immense amount of both creativity and detail) were completely fungible and simply sprang into existence by spontaneous generation. Annotators, cut it out!

Dmitri Tymoczko: A Geometry of Music

I have always been a sucker for music theory and analysis. The combination of the fairly strict rules underpinning the way in which music works with the creative freedom expressed on top of them is really appealing to me. It is probably true of any art, but music is the one I know best and it feels especially true there. This new book promised “a revolutionary approach to music theory”, which set off my bullshit detector a bit, but everything else about it (blurbs, published by Oxford University Press) checked out, so I gave it a shot.

And it was great. There is a lot of exciting new stuff here, but Tymoczko doesn’t claim to have replaced the entire field of music theory, just to have discovered an additional way of looking at music that provides interesting insights, and he totally succeeds there. A quick overview, focusing on the stuff that was interesting to me:

n-part counterpoint can be visualized as the movement of a point through an n-dimensional space. Pretty obvious stuff in retrospect, especially if you have a math background, but it lets him do some neat analytical things, especially when he gets to 4+—note chords. Also, that n-dimensional space repeats in a very interesting way (the 2-dimensional case is a Möbius strip; the higher-dimensional ones are even weirder).

There’s a continuum all the way from local 2-part counterpoint to long-range modulation. Basically, Tymoczko is looking at music as much as he can through the concept of efficient voice-leading (transitioning from one set of pitches to another with each individual part moving as little as possible). In the small, this is about melodic counterpoint. In the middle, the same principles can be applied to harmonic motion (and he shows how a lot of chromatic music from Schubert on is best analyzed from this viewpoint). And in the large scale, you can treat scales (and therefore tonalities) as being akin to 7-note (or so) chords and do exactly the same sort of analysis. So for example, your standard modulation from C major to G major can be thought of as following a voice leading from C-D-E-F-G-A-B to C-D-E-F♯-G-A-B. Obviously there are qualitative differences as you move along this spectrum, but the fact that you can be using similar tools at each scale is really neat.

20th century tonality is a natural evolution of classical tonality, not a clean break. The standard history of music is that tonality slowly got stretched and stretched, as harmony got further and further out, until it reached a breaking point in the early 20th century, where it pretty much split into complete atonality on the one hand, and on the other a “tonality with non-functional harmony” that was qualitatively different from the tonality that came before in that the chords in it, although they were still consonant, had lost much of the semantic meaning that they had had through the 19th century. Tymoczko argues pretty strongly that rather than there being a real break between old and modern conceptions of tonality, the transition is actually relatively smooth, in that early 20th century composers were solving perfectly natural problems that had arisen in perfectly natural ways. These problems, as above, tend to be ones of voice-leading and the relationship between chords and scales. He also draws a compelling line from 19th century harmony through 20th century harmony through jazz harmony to 21st century harmony. Clearly everyone can hear jazzy chords in Debussy, for example, and you can think of it as being kind of a coincidence, but he shows that impressionist composers and jazz musicians were faced with similar musical problems, and solved them in similar ways.

There’s a ton more in here, and pretty much all of it was thought-provoking at the very least and genuinely conception-altering at the best. As far as background needed: although it doesn’t have much in the way of music-theoretical prerequisites (because it is approaching a lot of ideas from a different direction), it probably wouldn’t be that interesting to anyone who wasn’t already interested enough in music theory to have learned the more standard approach (if that makes sense). There’s a bit of math terminology but I don’t think it’s that scary. Highly recommended.

Steven Erikson: Memories of Ice

Book three of The Malazan Book of the Fallen does at least return to the same general location and cast of characters as the first book, but in a way, doing so makes the giant scope of the project even more clear, by launching off into entirely new plots with those characters instead of continuing the trajectories they seemed to be on, and throwing in scads of new characters and plots as well.

The first time I read Memories of Ice I was a little frustrated by this. After spending a whole book away from the setting of Gardens of the Moon, I thought that returning to it would entitle me to the answers to many of the questions left hanging in that book. Instead I got a dozen new mysteries, and new characters where I wanted to learn more about the old ones. Combine that with a length of 1200 pages (in mass market paperback, at least), and it’s no wonder that I started to get a little fatigued.

But as with all of the books in this series, it improves on rereading, especially after reading later books in the series so that you have a better sense of how the events and themes of this book fit into the greater plot arcs. In fact, what seems to be the main plotline of the entire series doesn’t even start until this book (I say “seems” because, being only up to book 7 as I write this, I’m not actually sure exactly where things are going). You could regard the “really needs multiple reads” as a positive or negative aspect; I think it’s a positive one. I don’t generally reread books much, but a lot of classical music requires (and expects) many listens before the full structure becomes clear, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable for a book to ask for the same.

All of the things I’ve said about earlier book in the series hold true in this one as well: the epic scope, the cast of hundreds featuring gods just as much as mortals, the relentless tragedy (I think this book is even more of a downer than Deadhouse Gates). I liked it a lot more this time through, even though I think the series really gets off the ground in book 4 when we leave this continent behind (apparently we return in book 8, though”¦). Anyone who gets this far is probably in it for the long haul, and I am no exception.