As I set out to write Reinventing Bach, a wise man said to me: “What is music? You are writing about the music of Bach, but really, you are writing toward the question of what music is.” It was a crucial insight. As I read other books about music, I was on the lookout for passages that spoke to the question of what music is through their prose, their analytic power, or their musician's ardor. Here are my five favorites.
1. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd - Joe Boyd is the Zelig of contemporary roots music: from Muddy Waters to Pink Floyd, from Fairport Convention to the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, from Nick Drake to REM to Afrobeat, Boyd was there as manager, producer, and musicians' friend. His memoir White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail, 2006) is as tightly focused as his tastes are rangy. Here he is on Joan Baez: “In my first year at Harvard, I saw her riding a Vespa with her boyfriend through the slush of the Cambridge winter, grinning wickedly with that beautiful dark mane trailing behind. She radiated sex and humour, not earnest politics. The pleasure she took in her own voice was sensual, her choice of songs based on the beauty of the melodies and the way they told of a world of wild (but often doomed) women and free-spirited, dangerous men.” Here he is on a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: “It was everything my twenty-one-year-old self might have dreamed of: 75,000 people packed into the Fairgrounds, with NPR-subscriber bags holding expertly marked programmes. America's black musical heritage was on parade across two long weekends and eight stages. But the audience was almost entirely white. The performers had learned their lessons, dropping any modernizations or slick showbiz gestures and re-creating the old-time styles the sophisticated audiences craved. On one level, it demonstrated respect for a deep culture and a rejection of shallow novelty. But removed from the soil in which it grew the music felt lifeless, like actors portraying characters who happened to be their younger selves. In two days wandering from stage to stage, I heard little I recognized as music.”
2. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams - Adams tells of leaving New England for the Bay Area in the early seventies. The change of scene led to a change in compositional emphasis brought on by a shattering insight he had while driving in the Sierra Nevada mountains with a cassette recorder playing Wagner in the seat beside him. “I listened intently to the shapely ascents and descents of Wagner's melodies and the rich, constantly morphing harmonic world they described. Wagner had not much been on my mind in those days . . . but this music, especially the quiet opening bars of 'Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey,' with its graceful leaps of sixths and sevenths and soft cushions of string chords, spoke to me. I said out loud, almost without thinking, 'He cares.' I was puzzled by my own statement. Who 'cares'? Evidently Wagner. 'What does he care about?'' Adams found an answer in Wagner's extraordinary confidence, which stemmed from his confidence in tonality, which, Adams came to think, gave the music a sincerity later music lacked. “Why had this music --- despite its complexity, despite its longueurs, despite the roving, constant postponement of resolution --- gained such a passionate, grateful audience? Obviously there were many reasons, but chief among them was the sincerity of the music.”
3. Music Quickens Time by Daniel Barenboim - Pianist and conductor Barenboim reveals himself in Music Quickens Time (Verso, 2008) as a mystic of sound. “Music is sonorous air,” he declares, quoting Ferrico Busoni, and goes on: “Sound is not independent---it does not exist by itself, but has a permanent, constant and unavoidable relationship to silence. . .The musician who produces a sound literally brings it into the physical world . . . unless he provides added energy, the sound will die. This is the lifespan of a single note---it is finite.” Music models a way to “quicken” time through the intensity of a piece, and also a way for people to be at once in proximity and in conflict. Of his friend Edward W. Said, Barenboim remarked: “His journey through this world took place precisely at a time when the humanity of music, its human value as well as the value of thought, the transcendence of the idea written in sounds, were, and regrettably continue to be, concepts in decline.” Music, for Barenboim, is a force set against silence musical and cultural alike.
4. Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz - Glenn Kurtz struggled to master the classical guitar, abandoned it, and then sought to return to the instrument out of the love of music rather than the quest for perfection. Practicing (Knopf, 2007) --- like the pianist Jeremy Denk's searching New Yorker piece of earlier this year --- makes clear just how unmusical, even anti-musical, the everyday pursuit of virtuosity can be. Here Kurtz describes playing “Weeping Willow” in his thirties: “I wonder what I first heard in this music when I first learned it as an eleven-year-old. I have no recordings of myself playing it, no notebooks from that time to reveal what I thought. My fingers moved in the same patterns as they do now, reaching the same notes. I feel the return of a childlike pleasure in making the music swing. But how could it be the same? So much has happened since then. Stretching for a high D at the top of the neck, I'm impressed that I could play it at all.”
5. My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music by Leon Fleisher - Leon Fleisher's pursuit of virtuosity took an awful turn when a mysterious condition paralyzed two fingers on his right hand for 35 years, until a Botox treatment freed the hand to play again. In Nine Lives (Anchor, 2010), written with Anne Midgette, Fleisher tells of all he did in the meantime to keep playing, and loving, music. One thing he did was learn to find words to describe musical effects he could not demonstrate. Here he is on his teacher Artur Schnabel: “For many musicians, the beats in a measure can become aggressive, downward events, like nails driven into a coffin. Bang, bang, bang, bang! One! Two! Three! Four! For Schnabel, they were an upward impetus, like springs, launching you forward to the next point. His playing defied gravity in that way.” And here he is on the two-handed performance --- at the memorial service for a dear friend --- that let him feel he was restored, more or less: “I wanted to make a special gesture. I played Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' . . . It took me a long time to grow into Bach and to reach an understanding of the music and a feeling I could play it with what I felt it required. 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' is particularly healing. It requires an almost childlike simplicity, but it takes a lifetime's experience, I feel, to express it.”