“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” --Martin Mull (probably)
In this week’s Advice for Readers blog, we present a selection of books about music that, in many ways, reflect our current cultural moment, even though the subjects and authors span generations and genres. Just like listening (and dancing. See: The essential guide to tap dance) to good music (or architecture) can be calming, cathartic, and even enlightening, good music writing can transport us from the usual and mundane and fill us with joy, sorrow, hope, understanding, and wonder. As for dancing about architecture, while it has been said that my dance moves sometimes resemble those of a Greek column or a Brutalist building (see: Isms : understanding architectural styles), I’m not sure that counts as being about architecture, just resembling it.
If, however, you squint with your right eye and think mainly with your left brain, a slight resemblance between music and architecture might be detected. Thanks to Greek philosopher Pythagoras (see: The music of Pythagoras : how an ancient brotherhood cracked the code of the universe and lit the path from antiquity to outer space) we know that music is the product of vibrations and that musical harmony results from the mathematical ratios between vibrational frequencies (so romantic! See: Musical sound : an introduction to the physics of music), much like modern physics tells us that vibrations play a fundamental role in the creation and properties of sub-atomic and quantum particles, the building blocks of all known matter (see: The elegant universe : superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory). It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to say that music and architecture are really different manifestations of the same principle (see: The mathematics of everyday life & The jazz of physics : the secret link between music and the structure of the universe). You could even say that, whether you are dancing about either music or architecture, you are really dancing about math. Horrifying, I know (I was specifically told there would be no math!) Fortunately, music (and architecture) have meaning beyond the embodiment of universal mathematical principles: music affects us physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, from before we were born and throughout our lives (see: This is your brain on music : the science of a human obsession). As that ol’ literary crooner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said,
So is music an asylum. It takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence and whereto. All the great interrogatories, like questioning angels, float in on its waves of sound. (see Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson : with annotations available via Link+).
Which brings us to this weeks list of reading suggestions (finally! See: To the point : a dictionary of concise writing). Below you will find a selection of books from 2020 on the subject of music: from the solace of J.S. Bach to the catharsis of punk rock, and from civil rights icons and soul music to pop parody and heavy metal. No matter what your taste in music, we can all find escape, inspiration, and purpose in our favorite songs and artists and the books written about them, meanwhile gaining a greater understanding of ourselves and the times we live in. The following quote could be applied to music writing, as well as to music itself:
There’s only two ways to sum up music: either it’s good or it’s bad. If it’s good you don’t mess about it; you just enjoy it. -- Louis Armstrong (see: An Encyclopedia of quotations about music)
Be sure to check OPL’s online catalog for CDs and LPs of some of the artists and genres mentioned below, and check Hoopla for free streaming music. Click on the link for each title below to visit the book's page in OPL's online catalog. There, you can place holds and find read-alike titles. For information about our sidewalk pickup service, go here. If you would like help placing holds or have any other questions, please contact OPL's call center at 510-238-3134 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Music Writing 2020
The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s by Emily J. Lordi
In The Meaning of Soul, Emily J. Lordi proposes a new understanding of this famously elusive concept. In the 1960s, Lordi argues, soul came to signify a cultural belief in black resilience, which was enacted through musical practices—inventive cover versions, falsetto vocals, ad-libs, and false endings. Through these soul techniques, artists such as Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, and Minnie Riperton performed virtuosic survivorship and thus helped to galvanize black communities in an era of peril and promise. Their soul legacies were later reanimated by such stars as Prince, Solange Knowles, and Flying Lotus. Breaking with prior understandings of soul as a vague masculinist political formation tethered to the Black Power movement, Lordi offers a vision of soul that foregrounds the intricacies of musical craft, the complex personal and social meanings of the music, the dynamic movement of soul across time, and the leading role played by black women in this musical-intellectual tradition.-- Provided by publisher.
Wendy Carlos : A Biography by Amanda Sewell
With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. Carlos's identity as a transgender woman has shaped many aspects of her life, her career, how she relates to the public, and how the public has received her and her music. Cultural factors surrounding the treatment of transgender people affected many of the decisions that Carlos has made over the decades. Additionally, cultural reception and perception of transgender people has colored how journalists, scholars, and fans have written about Carlos and her music for decades. There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture.-- From the publisher
Glitter Up the Dark : How Pop Music Broke the Binary by Sasha Geffen
Why has music so often served as an accomplice to transcendent expressions of gender? Why did the query "is he musical?" become code, in the twentieth century, for "is he gay?" Why is music so inherently queer? For Sasha Geffen, the answers lie, in part, in music’s intrinsic quality of subliminal expression, which, through paradox and contradiction, allows rigid gender roles to fall away in a sensual and ambiguous exchange between performer and listener. Glitter Up the Dark traces the history of this gender fluidity in pop music from the early twentieth century to the present day. Starting with early blues and the Beatles and continuing with performers such as David Bowie, Prince, Missy Elliot, and Frank Ocean, Geffen explores how artists have used music, fashion, language, and technology to break out of the confines mandated by gender essentialism and establish the voice as the primary expression of gender transgression. From glam rock and punk to disco, techno, and hip-hop, music helped set the stage for today’s conversations about trans rights and recognition of nonbinary and third-gender identities. Glitter Up the Dark takes a long look back at the path that led here. -- Provided by publisher.
Switched On Pop : How Popular Music Works & Why it Matters by Nate Sloan & Charlie Harding ; illustrations by Iris Gottlieb
Pop music surrounds us - in our cars, over supermarket speakers, even when we are laid out at the dentist - but how often do we really hear what's playing? Switched on Pop is the book based on the eponymous podcast that has been hailed by NPR, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Entertainment Weekly for its witty and accessible analysis of Top 40 hits. Through close studies of sixteen modern classics, musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding shift pop from the background to the foreground, illuminating the essential musical concepts behind two decades of chart-topping songs. Replete with engaging discussions and eye-catching illustrations, Switched on Pop brings to life the musical qualities that catapult songs into the pop pantheon. Readers will find themselves listening to familiar tracks in new ways and not just those from the Top 40. The timeless concepts that Nate and Charlie define can be applied to any musical style. From fanatics to skeptics, teenagers to octogenarians, non-musicians to professional composers, every music lover will discover something ear-opening in Switched on Pop.--From the publisher
Going back to Prince Rogers Nelson's roots, especially his contradictory, often tortured, and sometimes violent relationship with his father, This Thing Called Life profoundly changes what we know about Prince, and explains him as no biography has: a superstar who calls in the middle of the night to talk, who loved The Wire and could quote from every episode of The Office, who frequented libraries and jammed spontaneously for local crowds (and fed everyone pancakes afterward), who was lonely but craved being alone. Readers will drive around Minneapolis with Prince in a convertible, talk about movies and music and life, and watch as he tries not to curse, instead dishing a healthy dose of “mamma jammas.”-- From the publisher
Mutations : The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters
How can so many people pledge allegiance to punk, something with no fixed identity? Depending on who and where you are, punk can be an outlet, excuse, lifestyle, escapism, conversation, community, ideology, sales category, social movement, punishable offense, badge of authenticity, reason to drink beer forever, or an aesthetic of belligerent incompetence. And if someone has a strong belief about what punk is, odds are they have even stronger feelings about what punk is not. Sam McPheeters championed many different versions. Over the course of two decades, he fronted Born Against, released dozens of records and fanzines, and toured seventeen times across the northern hemisphere. In this collection of essays, profiles, criticism, and personal history, he examines the diverse realms he intersected--New York hardcore, Riot Grrrl, Gilman street, the hidden enclaves of Olympia, and New England, and downtown Los Angeles--and the forces of mental illness and creative inspiration that drove him, and others, in the first place.--From the publisher
Odetta : A Life in Music and Protest by Ian Zack
Odetta’s importance extends far beyond music. Journalist Ian Zack follows Odetta from her beginnings in deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to stardom in San Francisco and New York. Odetta used her fame to bring attention to the civil rights movement, working alongside Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and other artists. Her opera-trained voice echoed at the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march, and she arranged a tour throughout the deeply segregated South. Her “Freedom Trilogy” songs became rallying cries for protesters everywhere. Through interviews with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, and many others, Zack brings Odetta back into the spotlight, reminding the world of the folk music that powered the civil rights movement and continues to influence generations of musicians today. -- From the publisher
Weird Al : Seriously by Lily E. Hirsch
Funny music is often dismissed as light and irrelevant, but Yankovic’s fourteen successful studio albums prove there is more going on than comedic music's reputation suggests. In this book, for the first time, the parodies, original compositions, and polka medleys of the Weird Al universe finally receive their due respect. Lily Hirsch weaves together original interviews with the prince of parody himself, creating a fresh take on comedy and music’s complicated romance. She reveals that Yankovic’s jests have always had a deeper meaning, addressing such topics as bullying, celebrity, and racial and gender stereotypes.-- From the publisher
Me & Patsy, Kickin' Up Dust : My Friendship With Patsy Cline by Loretta Lynn, with Patsy Lynn Russell
Me & Patsy Kickin' Up Dust shares the 'important and inspiring' (Miranda Lambert) never-before-told complete story of the remarkable relationship between country music icons Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Loretta Lynn and the late Patsy Cline are legends--country icons and sisters of the heart. For the first time ever Loretta tells their story: a celebration of their music and their relationship up until Patsy's tragic and untimely death. Full of laughter and tears, this eye-opening, heartwarming memoir paints a picture of two stubborn, spirited country gals who'd be damned if they'd let men or convention tell them how to be. Set in the heady streets of the 1960s South, this nostalgia ride shows how Nashville blossomed into the city of music it is today. Tender and fierce, Me & Patsy Kickin' Up Dust is an up-close-and-personal portrait of a friendship that defined a generation and changed country music indelibly--and a meditation on love, loss and legacy--From the publisher
Dave Brubeck : A Life in Time by Philip Clark
In 2003, music journalist Philip Clark was granted unparalleled access to jazz legend Dave Brubeck. Over the course of ten days, he shadowed the Dave Brubeck Quartet during their extended British tour, recording an epic interview with the bandleader. Brubeck opened up as never before, disclosing his unique approach to jazz; the heady days of his "classic" quartet in the 1950s-60s; hanging out with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis; and the many controversies that had dogged his 66-year-long career. Alongside beloved figures like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, Brubeck's music has achieved name recognition beyond jazz. But finding a convincing fit for Brubeck's legacy, one that reconciles his mass popularity with his advanced musical technique, has proved largely elusive.--From the publisher
Remain In Love : Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz
Two iconic bands. An unforgettable life. One of the most dynamic groups of the '70s and '80s, Talking Heads, founded by drummer Chris Frantz, his girlfriend Tina Weymouth, and lead singer David Byrne, burst onto the music scene, playing at CBGBs, touring Europe with the Ramones, and creating hits like "Psycho Killer" and "Burning Down the House" that captured the post-baby boom generation's intense, affectless style. In Remain in Love, Frantz writes about the beginnings of Talking Heads-their days as art students in Providence, moving to the sparse Chrystie Street loft Frantz, Weymouth, and Byrne shared where the music that defined an era was written. With never-before-seen photos and immersive vivid detail, Frantz describes life on tour, down to the meals eaten and the clothes worn-and reveals the mechanics of a long and complicated working relationship with a mercurial frontman. At the heart of Remain in Love is Frantz's love for Weymouth: their once-in-a-lifetime connection as lovers, musicians, and bandmates, and how their creativity surged with the creation of their own band Tom Tom Club, bringing a fresh Afro-Caribbean beat to hits like "Genius of Love." Studded with memorable place and names from the era-Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, Stephen Sprouse, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, and Debbie Harry among them-Remain in Love is a frank and open memoir of an emblematic life in music and in love.-- Provided by publisher.
Arthur Briggs’s life was Homeric in scope. Born on the tiny island of Grenada, he set sail for Harlem during the Renaissance, then to Europe in the aftermath of World War I, where he was among the first pioneers to introduce jazz music to the world. During the legendary Jazz Age in Paris, Briggs’s trumpet provided the soundtrack while Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Lost Generation got drunk. By the 1930s, Briggs was considered “the Louis Armstrong of Paris,” and was the peer of the greatest names of his time, from Josephine Baker to Django Reinhardt. Even during the Great Depression, he was secure as “the greatest trumpeter in Europe.” He did not, however, heed warnings to leave Paris before it fell to the Nazis, and in 1940, he was arrested and sent to the prison camp at Saint Denis. What happened at that camp, and the role Briggs played in it, is truly unforgettable. Better Days Will Come Again, based on groundbreaking research and including unprecedented access to Briggs’s oral memoir, is a crucial document of jazz history, a fast-paced epic, and an entirely original tale of survival.--From the publisher
Raising hell : Backstage Tales from the Lives of Metal Legends by Jon Wiederhorn
From the author of the celebrated classic Louder Than Hell comes an oral history of the badass Heavy Metal lifestyle―the debauchery, demolition, and headbanging dedication―featuring metalhead musicians from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot to Disturbed, Megadeth, Throwdown and more. Drawing from 150-plus first-hand interviews with vocalists, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, and drummers, music journalist Jon Wiederhorn offers this collection of wild shenanigans from metal’s heaviest and most iconic acts―the parties, the tours, the mosh pits, the rage, the joy, the sex, the drugs . . . the heavy metal life!
Horns up! -- From the publisher
Cool Town : How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale
In Athens in the eighties, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Cool Town reveals the passion, vitality, and enduring significance of a bohemian scene that became a model for others to follow. Grace Elizabeth Hale experienced the Athens scene as a student, small-business owner, and band member. Blending personal recollection with a historian's eye, she reconstructs the networks of bands, artists, and friends that drew on the things at hand to make a new art of the possible, transforming American culture along the way. In a story full of music and brimming with hope, Hale shows how an unlikely cast of characters in an unlikely place made a surprising and beautiful new world.
More Myself : A Journey by Alicia Keys
As one of the most celebrated musicians in the world, Alicia Keys has enraptured the globe with her heartfelt lyrics, extraordinary vocal range, and soul-stirring piano compositions. Yet away from the spotlight, Alicia has grappled with private heartache―over the challenging and complex relationship with her father, the people-pleasing nature that characterized her early career, the loss of privacy surrounding her romantic relationships, and the oppressive expectations of female perfection. In More Myself, Alicia shares her quest for truth―about herself, her past, and her shift from sacrificing her spirit to celebrating her worth. With the raw honesty that epitomizes Alicia’s artistry, More Myself is at once a riveting account and a clarion call to readers: to define themselves in a world that rarely encourages a true and unique identity.--From the publisher
Counterpoint : A Memoir of Bach and Mourning by Philip Kennicott
A Pulitzer Prize- winning critic reflects on the meaning and emotional impact of a Bach masterwork. As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began listening to the music of Bach obsessively, and spent the next five years trying to learn one of the composer's greatest keyboard masterpieces, the Goldberg Variations. In Counterpoint, he recounts his efforts to rise to the challenge, and to fight through his grief by coming to terms with memories of a difficult, complicated childhood. He describes the joys of mastering some of the pieces, the frustrations that plague his understanding of others, the technical challenges they pose, and the surpassing beauty of the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoint that distinguish them. While exploring Bach's compositions, he sketches a cultural history of playing the piano in the twentieth century. And he raises two questions that become increasingly interrelated, not unlike a contrapuntal passage in one of the variations itself: What does it mean to know a piece of music? What does it mean to know another human being?-- Provided by publisher.