Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Writing on Music

I don't run across too much good writing about music in the mass media. There are good places to go for the latest news, like Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc or the Arts Journal. But while the stories may be interesting, the writing does not delve very deep. Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise site promises good writing about music, but almost never delivers--his good stuff is in the New Yorker, but I find that too awkwardly pretentious to be actually interesting.

My standard for "good writing about music" probably derives partly from examples like Richard Taruskin's occasional forays such as this one in which he does a fine job of exposing some of the excessive claims of the Early Music movement. I like writing about music to be something you can get your teeth into instead of the froth that usually passes for writing in the mass media.

But I did just run across another writer on music that has been doing a good job for quite a while: Jan Swafford, a composer and writer who has a regular column in Slate Magazine. His most recent outing was on beautiful melodies and he points us to quite a few interesting examples from Monteverdi to Brahms to the Beatles. Another fascinating column was about how he learned to love Mozart's The Magic Flute and how he learned to dislike Philip Glass.

In another column he explains why Leonard Cohen is a great lyricist and songwriter and is quite probably better than Bob Dylan. Here is a touching piece on the last music composers wrote before they died. Here is a wide-ranging survey of what composers are up to these days, A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music. Oh, note that the clip attributed to "Eight Songs," by Jefferson Friedman is actually something else. You can find the correct clip, if you really want to, on YouTube. Finally, here is a brilliant little essay on the power of silence.

Jan Swafford always has something interesting to say and he manages to say it without becoming too technical. Just one problem with the older pieces: the musical examples seem to be the wrong ones or they are missing entirely. You will have to search them out on YouTube.

Let's end with an artist that Taruskin cites as being "premodern", i.e. before the trend towards the literal, the impersonal and the lightweight, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1952 in a performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony:


Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for the new links.

The Taruskin article is interesting.
Coming from an early music background myself, I've seen quite a lot of the dogmatic tendencies that some of the people involved push. It's not even early western music but afficionado's of early jazz as well and it's at the point where I now become immediately skeptical when I hear the word 'style' used in a debate to defend musical choices.

However, There is quite a lot wrong with it too. I don't agree entirely with his statements regarding counter tenors and their place in early music. He himself seems to be conveniently skipping over aspects of history that don't support his position. One example would be the spanish falsettist school that was quite well known for turning out good singers during the renaissance and is often cited as a precursor to the castrati - Certainly not english or anglican.

(I'm also pretty sure that Handel did use falsettists in a few of his oratorio productions...I just wish I could remember the singers name and which productions.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Nathaniel,

I suspect that we have similar opinions about Taruskin. I think he is a brilliant scholar with an impressively wide range of knowledge. He is also a brilliant writer capable of striking polemics which I usually find very provocative in the best way. But he also tends to go too far. Previously I have objected to his thoughts on the way rhythm is handled in Early Music. He seems to think it is always rigid and related to the neoclassical elements in modernism. Perhaps there is a grain of truth there. He says:

"The impersonalism of Early Music has resulted in performances of unprecedented formal clarity and precision. It has also resulted in a newly militant reluctance to make the subtle, constant adjustments of tempo and dynamics on which expressivity depends, for these can have no sanction but personal feeling."

But there are hosts of performers of Early Music who use loads of rubato--and not Chopinesque rubato either, but that proper to the music. Just listen to Gustav Leonhardt playing an unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin for one example out of hundreds.

And thanks to you for mentioning another example of Taruskin's overzealous claims.

But thank goodness he exists! Because he sure gets people thinking.