If there is an underlying theme in this beautiful book this is the unity of music, classical and popular. The distinction between classical music as 'high art' and popular music as 'low art' is false. As Berg once aptly remarked to Gershwin, music is music. The author in providing an insight into the music of the Finn song-writer and singer Bjiork is simultaneously expressing criticism to both classical and popular musicians but also possibly expressing an ideal:'music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music. The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again.'
The elements that comprise the book's fascination are the erudition of the author -music critic for the New Yorker - his unbound love for the subject, his charisma in writing exemplified in the compelling narrative and the unimpeded flow of the prose, his personal interaction with the living musicians presented in the text and his uncanny ability to sketch the personalities of musicians - live and dead - appearing in the book and to provide a profound insight into the character and characteristics of their music.
The book organized in three parts combines revised New Yorker articles, with one long piece written for the occasion. The first part comprise three aerial surveys of the musical landscape, encompassing both classical and pop terrain. The first chapter is a kind of memoir turned manifesto. The chapter 'Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues' is the new thing - a whirlwind history of music told through two or three bass lines. 'Infernal Machines' brings together thoughts on the intersection of music and technology. The verdict is positive on Technology in that it democratizes music.
The second part traces a dozen or so musicians living and dead:composers, conductors, pianists, string quartets, rock bands, singer-song writers, high-school band teachers. These essays generally excellent, some masterly are self-sufficient and consequently they can be read in any sequence and not necessarily in the order they appear in the book.
The final part describes three radically different figures - Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Johannes Brahms who touch on things almost too deep for words. I found the essay on Dylan particularly fascinating and intriguing and possessing an elusive personality. Dylan is seldom talked in musical terms:his work is nalysed instead as poetry, wisdom or causing bafflement.
Somehow I feel the urge to conclude the review with three Dylan songs of the several that appear in the text:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll With a cane that he twirled round his diamond finger At a Baltimore society gathering.
Me, I'm still on the road, heading for another joint We always did feel the same, we just saw from a different point Of view Tangled up in blue.
A saxophone someplace far off played As she was walking on by the arcade As the light burst through a beat-up shade Where he was waking up She dropped a coin into the cup Of a blind man at the gate And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
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