Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
I finally got around to this, more than 10 years after it came out; you’d think that, as a musician, I would have read it sooner, given one of its principal characters is an opera singer. On the surface, it’s about the terrorist takevover of a South American government residence, but the real themes are the intensities of the human heart and the potency of music. The Lyric Opera of Chicago will premiere Jimmy López’s opera based on the book in 2015-16.
My Kind of Place and Rin Tin Tin – both by Susan Orlean
I am becoming a big fan of Orlean’s writing, beautifully crafted journalism, often on offbeat topics, that transcends reporting to become literature. My Kind of Place is an anthology of short pieces, mostly travel-based, while Rin Tin Tin is a book length exploration of a dog – and the idea of a dog – that persisted through most of the 20th century. Orlean is sometimes a presence in her own writing, but always appropriately so, and that presence helps her achieve some of her most touching writing. She is also terrifically funny. Visit her entertaining Twitter feed here.
Thinking in Jazz – Paul F. Berliner
It is taking me quite a while to work through this tome, but it is worth it, for there are helpful insights everywhere, as well as many fascinating transcriptions. There are also passages of remarkable banality: “Typically, young learners cultivate their own performance skills with dedication and determination.” “The bass continues to develop within the jazz idiom in direct relationship to the skills and creativity of its master artists.” “One of the ways in which learners modify an initial mentor’s influence is by studying the styles of other artists…” There’s stuff like this on just about every other page. Some of the quotes from musicians are no better. I suppose Berliner is just trying to be thorough, but It’s as though he was trying to explain jazz to a Martian unfamiliar with Earth music. Nevertheless, I am learning a great deal about how musicians develop a vocabulary for improvisation and how they create and vary compositional structures – how they think in music, not just about music.