Tuesday, February 26, 2008

50BC08: #4 Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music

TITLE: Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (Dover, 1962)
AUTHORS: Claude Debussy, Ferruccio Busoni, Charles Ives
GENRE: non-fiction
PAGES: 188
4 out of 5 stars

One of the joys of reading about aesthetics, particularly as the field applies to music, is that there is such a variance of thought about what is beautiful. For all three of the authors included in this collection, beauty is not solely defined by consonance and dissonance. These composer-authors grapple with the role of inspiration, philosophical contexts, and music itself.

Claude Debussy, "Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater" (1927)
Debussy does not mince words and offers invective toward everything from opera to arts administration. It is more music criticism than a specific treatise on aesthetics. It is impossible, however, to read this group of essays without tasting the clear flavor of Debussy's own aesthetic agenda. For example, the Paris Opera, for Debussy, "...continue[s] to produce curious noises which the people who pay call music, but there is no need to believe them implicitly." (24)

Ferruccio Busoni, "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music "(1911)
Busoni gives the reader a more straightforward offering complete with footnotes and musical examples. However, even Busoni likes to wax poetic: "Tradition is a plaster mask taken from life..." (n.1, p. 7). In another footnote, Busoni makes the case for microtonality, attacking the idea of musical "purity":

But what is "pure," and what "impure?" We hear a piano "gone out of tune," and whose intervals may thus have become "pure, but unserviceable," and it sounds impure to us. The diplomatic "Twelve-semitone system" is an invention mothered by necessity yet none the less do we sedulously guard its imperfections. (89)

Charles Ives, "Essays before a Sonata" (1920)
It is Ives' contribution that is the most beautiful read. He offers an essay that is one part program note (for the Concord Sonata (1915, rev. 1947)) to two parts philosophical and aesthetic treatise. Writing with all the passion and transcendental fervor he can muster, Ives presents various New England literary figureheads as aesthetes, blurring the line between the artistry of literature and that of music.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Memoriam: Alain Robbe-Grillet

As this is a blog about books and reading, I will, from time to time, report on significant events in the literary world and in the related blogosphere.

I am sad to report the passing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, French author and filmaker.

As for my current reading projects, I hope to have a report on Ives' "Essay Before a Sonata" soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

50BC08: #3 The Music of Chance

TITLE: The Music of Chance
AUTHOR: Paul Auster
(Penguin, 1990, 217 pages)
GENRE: Fiction

Rating 3.5 out of 5

I appreciated what this novel was trying to do, but was bothered by my complete and utter lack of attachment to the characters. The premise (lives colliding by chance) is intriguing and the narrative is beautifully executed. What was missing for me was the answer to "why?." The main character seems to be a passive observer to his own life, with a few moments of real passion interspersed.

Auster does have a gift for metaphor, using Pozzi and Nashe's wall as a symbol of perseverance and incarceration at the same time. There is a tenderness that while left largely unexplored, runs like a tiny stream throughout the story. It is this stream that saves the book. We learn how quickly solitude loses its freedom-like quality when faced with personal loss.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review: Bread Upon the Waters

50 Book Challenge 2008 #2:
TITLE: Bread Upon the Waters
AUTHOR: Irwin Shaw
YEAR: 1981
GENRE: Fiction
PAGES: 479

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

In the tradition of Agee's A Death in the Family, or Guest's Ordinary People, this is a book about a family's whose life changes drastically after their tennis-playing teenage daughter becomes an unlikely hero one evening in Central Park. Driven by this one catalyst, the events that play out for the Strand Family become like dominoes, each one building momentum as they fall against each other.

Shaw does a masterful job with the narrative rhythm, careful not to show his hand too soon. This might infuriate some readers with a lack of patience or a preference for plot-driven narrative. The plot picks up speed about two-thirds of the way into the book, and comes to a halt (but by no means a "grinding" one) only at the very end.

This is a portrait of a family and the lives that touch it (and vice-versa). It is beautifully lifelike it its messiness, but also in its portrayal of perseverance. Tragedy does not always beget tragedy, but in Shaw's world, good deeds are not always wholly good, either.

It is a book about the complexities of life. The characters are "everyman" characters in that Shaw keeps them at a distance, so we become attached more to their predicaments than to the characters themselves. While this is more instructive for the reader, it does steal something from the fictional experience, at least for me.

Overall, a very fine novel that captures the angst of everyday life with a certain refreshing objectivity.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Absolutely one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Michael Pollan is one of those writers who could probably draw any reader into any topic. Omnivore's Dilemma is a captivating and enriching narrative of Pollan's journey to

"look as far into the food chains that support us...and recover the fundamental biological realities that the complexities of modern industrialized eating keep from our view" (281).

From a family meal at McDonalds to a meal wherein he "hunted and gathered" all the ingredients himself (or mostly), Pollan details how we face a much larger question than simply "meat or no meat." He reveals how shopping at Whole Foods presents its own dilemma, even for those who are already conscious about what they eat.

In the end, Pollan doesn't really come to a conclusion in terms of a choice. His point is to start a conversation that needs to happen because we are allowing the USDA to dictate our eating habits. We have taken for granted that while we may be on the top of the food chain, we are still a chain, linked to countless other forms of life and ecosystems. Pollan hopes for a day when

"...we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world." (411)

Book 1/50 for the 50 Book Challenge 2008