Recent Reading

Though some deadlines kept me working very hard over the holidays,  I still found some time to read. My recent reading has included:

  • David Schiff’s new book on Carter. This is a welcome update to Schiff’s earlier books on the composer, insightful and well-written, but rather different in character from the earlier books, delving less into technical matters. There are no musical examples, save for a curious page with a few signature musical motifs Carter has often employed. Who would read a book about Elliott Carter yet be put off by the presence of score notation?  The book is not the full biography that Carter deserves, something like Howard Pollock’s book on Copland – for that, someone will have to, as Schiff notes, go through the 10,000 letters in the Carter files at the Sacher Foundation, as well as do much more. Sometimes the book reads like a series of uncommonly elegant program notes, but it is hard to fault Schiff for not digging deeper; Carter was unbelievably productive in his late years and there is a huge amount of material to discuss. I suppose a book that went into detail about every single piece would become unreadable, more like an encyclopedia or catalog. I was a bit taken aback by how strongly Schiff dislikes the libretto for Carter’s opera What’s Next? – I need to go back and listen to the piece again with his comments in mind.
  • I finally finished Proust’s À la recherche, over 30 years after purchasing the three volume set at Bookforum on Broadway, near Columbia, during my student days. I know it’s a cliché to say “one is never finished reading Proust”, but I do feel that if I returned to Swann’s Way now, it would be with much greater appreciation and understanding. On the other hand, I could certainly use a break. Derwent May’s short volume on Proust increased my enjoyment of the novel, and I recommend it.
  • I loved Everyone at This Party Has Two Names by Brad Aaron Modlin, a volume of poems that made me wince in recognition, smile at its wry humor, and pause thoughtfully over its poignant insights. There’s a text in this volume I want to set before too long, it’s that kind of book.

Christmas Break Reading List

I’m presently quite absorbed by the new Harvey Sachs biography of Toscanini, but also in progress or waiting to be opened are Leonard Slatkin’s Leading Tones (which includes amusing anecdotes and astonishing stats on the premieres that man has given – what a contribution to the field!) and Fred Hersch’s Good Things Happen Slowly. Then there is the reading in prep for the grad course I will be doing next semester: George Perle, Douglas Jarman and Dave Headlam on Berg, and David Schiff’s unique The Ellington Century. I’ve been reading and re-reading Perle since I studied with him decades ago, always with pleasure and profit and not a little awe at his command of the material; but there is also much to learn from Jarman and Headlam.

Let me repost a couple of seasonal links:  a reminder to work on your eartraining at Christmas time, as well as a Christmas cookie recipe in the manner of the Roman Missal.

Out to Lunch

I have been busy trying to get stuff done before going to DC on Friday for the National Cathedral piece. I’m not sure what internet access I will have while there, so this might be the last post for a bit.

Despite this week’s busyness, I have been doing some reading, including dipping into David Schiff’s fascinating The Ellington Century, which features a few pages on Eric Dolphy’s tribute to Monk, “Hat and Beard”. Schiff writes:

There is not a single moment in “Hat and Beard” where the rhythmic patterns suggest the expected patterns of bebop, let alone swing. Yet it swings. The rhythmic layering and the vocabulary of rhythmic gestures in play all stem from the jazz tradition, and the exquisite timing and phrasing of the five performers sum up generations of rhythmic experiment by musicians predating even Bechet and Armstrong. The loss of pop tune harmonic progressions seems no loss at all; on the contrary, they feel like an unneccessary encumbrance, mere scaffolding. The rhythmic and harmonic implications of the ostinato theme seem more rigorous and apt in their demands on the players. There’s life after rhythm changes.

(For the uninitiated, “rhythm changes” refers to the chord changes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”, a perennial choice of harmonic underpinning for jazz tunes.) The personnel: Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson, vibes; Richard Davis, bass; and an eighteen year old Tony Williams on drums.

Walker, Messiaen, Rosen

I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.

I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up –  but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.

There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”

I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:

In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.


I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.

Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.

I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.

Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…

I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?

Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.

* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?