This is a guest post by musician and writer Jay Sherman-Godfrey.
As long as I’ve been a musician, I’ve enjoyed reading about music almost as much as I’ve enjoyed making it.
My bookshelf and record collection have grown together, one informing the other, and I’ve discovered that keeping up with music literature enhances my appreciation of great records and helps keep my ears open to new sounds.
In February, TMimaS editor Justin Colletti published a superb list of books that delve into the craft of recording, along with a few titles that offer a broader perspective on music and the music business. I’d like to augment that list with a set of books that go farther afield.
Each of these titles approaches music as a primal and human preoccupation. They remind us of its universality, and through them we find that Beethoven, Coltrane, Dylan, Lennon, Schoenberg, Ellington, and Rotten maybe aren’t so disparate after all. Sure, they may be arguing, mocking, grandstanding, and whispering behind each other’s backs, but they’re all hanging out at the same party, having a good time.
The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg (Yale University Press)
Organized as a loosely-related set of essays and character studies, Eisenberg’s classic text is full of delicious provocations. He begins by taking us back to a time before the advent of sound recording, when music was experienced, consumed, and regarded in ways we can hardly imagine. He then guides us through music’s extraordinary transformation from a transient experience to something you can own forever.
Eisenberg positions Edison’s second-most-famous invention as a profound cultural turning point, one that fundamentally re-figured and re-codified an ancient art. Music, once tuned to specific social rhythms, slips out of place and time when recorded; it becomes a requiem over breakfast, smoke-and-cocktail-drenched jazz in rush hour traffic, Mozart for make-out music, or a techno rave on earbuds in your doctor’s waiting room.
Similarly, he investigates how the inherently collective experiences of concerts and of dance—are made solitary and hyper-personal. Eisenberg proposes that playing records can be as creative as playing instruments, and makes everyone a kind of musician – or perhaps something better and more authentic. Given the 1987 publication date, it reads as a prescient observation of where digital audio would take us.
The character profiles in The Recording Angel show people, at liberty to consume music at will, becoming consumed by it. Music lovers become obsessed collectors, cherishing the artifact over the art; a gifted piano player recoils from the human imperfections of performance, drawn to the unvarying perfection of the vinyl groove.
As the subtitle suggests, Eisenberg’s scope is large, and I can only hint at its depth. His account of the reclusive virtuoso pianist Glenn Gould and his peculiar relationship to recording is especially fascinating. If you’ve spent your life in thrall of records, read this book.
The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures)
by Leonard Bernstein (Harvard University Press)
There have been few others as voluble or articulate about music as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. He was a delightful writer, but he shined even brighter as a lecturer. This is in evidence in a multitude of clips you can find on the web. In fact, most of the talks this book is based on are available on YouTube. (The first installment is here.)
These lectures, given in 1973 and named after a piece of music by iconoclastic composer Charles Ives, were a culmination of a lifetime of musical and teaching experience. His question is basic: Why music? His answer is simple and beautiful: Because we’re human.
Of all the books on the list,The Unanswered Question may be the hardest to swallow for contemporary readers. Bernstein can seem corny, as much as for his style of presentation as for his unabashed enthusiasm. His ideas can appear quaint, and his posturing, cloying. Some of the lines of inquiry may even seem obvious at first, but somehow Bernstein repeatedly ends up somewhere deeper and more interesting than we expect.
He was a man of his era – an era when the conductor of the New York Philharmonic was an A-list celebrity and “non-political public intellectual” was a gainful and respected occupation. Bernstein, charismatic and patrician, stubbornly clung to the already out-of-fashion notion that music should embody emotion and beauty. He shows us how to open our ears to all of it—from 12-tone to boogie-woogie. (This is where the video trumps the book, as he often goes to the piano to demonstrate.) It helps to have a grasp of classical and modern orchestral music, but no matter where your sympathies lie, Lennie always makes you feel like he’s on your side.
Bernstein knows that words rarely do justice to the music he loves, but he keeps on talking, keeps on questioning, and in doing so, creates a practical, emotional, and generous language we can use to discuss the music itself.
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume/Penguin)
Daniel Levitin was a session player, engineer and record producer before he began studying cognitive neuroscience. Now a prominent researcher at McGill University, Levitin brings his experience to bear in this fascinating look into how music affects our brains, and how our brains are designed to perceive music. Along the way, he uncovers a physiological basis for Bernstein’s universalism, and even gets at the roots of Eisenberg’s record-junkie obsessions.
Combining cutting-edge neuroscience with evolutionary psychology, Levitin looks at the basic physical reactions we have to sound stimulus and comes to a conclusion that would make Bernstein smile: we’re built for music. He goes against the more conventional scientific view that music is just a pleasant side effect of the evolutionary process, and instead positions it as a core element in our physical, cognitive, and social development.
Though the science can be daunting, Levitin is a gifted storyteller and keeps the jargon to a minimum. We learn about neural pathways and how the disorganized and developing adolescent brain gives way to a specialized adult brain that shuts down paths it no longer uses. This physiology, Levitin claims, is one reason why the music we listened to and loved as teens stays paramount in our experience. So we’re not simply old and out of touch—our brains just can’t physically process new music the way the kids can.
He also points out music’s singular place in memory, focusing on how the mind retains melodies and songs in a more profound and multidimensional way than it does with language. This, he says, underlies why we attach music to our important communal rituals and the significant personal events in our lives. To Levitin, music is the necessary soundtrack to our shared evolutionary history. What Bernstein understands through technique and intuition, Levitin finds engraved in our DNA.
Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
by Carl Wilson (Continuum)
Discovering Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series can make the world seem a little more perfect. These book-length studies of classic records are a dream come true for any music and word geek. As the series has grown, its writers have stretched and bent the format in more and more creative ways. Some have even transcended it.
These standouts include Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces, Warren Zanes’ Dusty in Memphis, and Andy Miller’s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. But chief among them for me is Carl Wilson’s little book about an album that he really hates.
Stalwart BBC DJ John Peel once said that he remained as popular as he was because he got to the kids’ ears “before they chose their tribe.” But at some point, most of us shed the open ears of musical omnivores like Peel and Bernstein and choose a more focused social music identity, gathering in that little room (just down the hall from the big party) where everyone dresses like us, talks like us, and listens to the same bands. Thus begins what Wilson calls our “taste biography, a narrative of shifting preferences”, which are defined more by what wedon’t like than what we do. He reminds us, quoting the poet Paul Valéry, that “Tastes are composed of a thousand distastes.”
Wilson’s investigation into his own tribal prejudices is triggered by a jarring juxtaposition at the 1998 Academy Awards. For best song, Elliot Smith’s sad and tender Miss Misery, from the film Good Will Hunting, was up against Celine Dion’s turgid ballad My Heart Will Go On from the blockbuster-of-blockbusters Titanic. Smith was a hero to Wilson, and this unlikely collision between his finely tuned alternative aesthetic and the uncomplicated tastes of the masses hits him in a tender spot.
Against the backdrop of a broad generational reassessment of pop’s critical importance (recall the “rockist” v. “poptimist” battles of the early-2000s) Wilson begins to question his position as a stubborn outlier and fringe player in a larger, maybe richer culture. He finds himself newly uncomfortable in this role, particularly as a fledgling mainstream music critic approaching 40. How can 20 million Celine Dion fans be so wrong?
Wilson’s subsequent journey is highly personal and delightfully wide-ranging. It cuts across culture, class, privilege, language, politics, and philosophy, exploring the lengths he will and won’t go to as he challenges his musical and cultural preconceptions. Go along for the ride, and you might find yourself asking some of the same uncomfortable questions, and coming away – as Wilson does – with a stronger sense of what the music you love really means to you.
Jay Sherman-Godfrey splits his time between writing and making music. He operates Able Mobile Recording Lab, a studio production and mobile recording service in Brooklyn, NY.