Category: Books

The Rest is Noise

Monday, October 29th, 2007 | All Things, Books, Music

I always feel a little nostalgic being back on campus, and this night, seated at a desk inside 501 Schermerhorn, I could not help but be reminded of lectures past. Tonight, though, I was here to sit in on an interview with Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the The New Yorker, whose long-anticipated history of music in the twentieth-century was released on October 16. The talk was led by Casper Mao, founding member of The Blue Notebooks, a student-run group presenting interviews with leading writers, artists, and intellectuals at Columbia University.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century addresses the basic question of why when works of Picasso and Pollock are mass-printed on posters, and lines from T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost are known to teenagers across the county, is twentieth-century classical music still considered elite, obscure and inaccessible? Yet despite these seemingly widespread attitudes, classical music seems to have experienced a resurgence in recent years. The United States now has 125 opera companies — more than opera-loving Germany or Italy — whereas fifty years ago there were only a handful. Roughly as many Americans attend live opera performances as attend NFL football games. The reports of the death of classical music, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

Columbia University

Ross is an engaging writer, and The Rest Is Noise (first chapter here) is his attempt at a whirlwind tour of the last century’s composers and major musical developments. Among the organizing principles is to place music in a wider cultural and political context: not just the (in)famous incidents like the scandals over Arnold Schoenberg‘s atonal works or the riots reacting to the visceral rhythms of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” but also for example, Dmitri Shostakovich’s consultations with Joseph Stalin, the inflection of Aaron Copland‘s music by the fashionable communism of New Deal America, and Richard Strauss’s work under the spell of Hitlerian aesthetics. Steve Reich and Philip Glass’s minimalist compositions were inspired by the freestyle independence of jazz and early rock and roll, which in turn later influenced acts like David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and Aphex Twin.

Alex Ross

Ross is one of my favorite music critics, and in person as in his writing, he is wittily informative without being judgmental or pedantic. (Above, cuing the severe, brooding bass and cello opening of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 to challenge musicology’s general dismissal of the composer as a traditionalist among his “modern” contemporaries.) Ross’s ambitious undertaking has received generally excellent reviews. How can you not like a guy who displays such an unabashed affinity for Björk (she even blurbed his book; Ross met the Icelandic singer-songwriter in 2004), and has championed the likes of Radiohead and 1990s indie rock band Pavement? Plus how many people can effectively work in a “Beavis and Butt-Head” reference when writing about rock chord progression and Jonny Greenwood’s slashing guitar?

Radiohead have stopped playing “Creep,” more or less, but it still hits home when it comes on the radio. When Beavis of “Beavis and Butt-head” heard the noisy part, he said, “Rock!” But why, he wondered, didn’t the song rock from beginning to end? “If they didn’t have, like, a part of the song that sucked, then, it’s like, the other part wouldn’t be as cool,” Butt-head explained.

I could not have said it better myself.

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The Language of Experience

Monday, October 15th, 2007 | All Things, Books, Events

Back at the Donnell Library Center across the street from the MoMA for The 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Awards presentation and reception. As with last year’s event, the evening celebrated outstanding books by writers of color, with the goal of increasing visibility for non-mainstream groups and ensuring that current literature represents the diversity of the American people.

The recipients of the 2007 Beyond Margins Awards are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun
Ernest Hardy for Blood Beats: Vol. 1
Harryette Mullen for Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge
Alberto Álvaro Ríos for The Theater of Night

Authors Jaime Manrique (pictured below) and Sonia Sanchez (minus her signature dreads: she cut them off after a debilitating bout with the flu a few months ago) offered the welcoming remarks and introduction before ceding the stage to the three readers who would be excerpting the winning works.

Jaime Manrique

Monique T.D. Truong read from Nigerian author Adichie’s political epic, which in June also won the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Marie Ponsot, who like Sanchez is a Frost Medal winner for “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry,” presented the poetry readings by Mullen and Ríos. I especially liked “Explaining a Husband” from Ríos’ collection of poems, which follows a couple in a United States-Mexico border town through their youth, marriage and old age.

Marie Ponsot

Author Adam Haslett, who in 2006 shared the PEN/Malamud Award with writer Tobias Wolff, counts author (and former teacher) Jonathan Franzen among his fans — which swirled up some controversy when Franzen picked Haslett’s debut story collection as the second book club selection for The Today Show‘s series in 2002. Tonight, though, Haslett was here to read from Hardy’s book of essays.

Adam Haslett

Afterwards, Hardy and Mullen joined Sanchez on the stage for a conversation about their inspirations (James Baldwin being a major one, across the board) and the challenges facing writers of color today.

PEN panel

The PEN website carries excerpts from the winning author’s books, audio clips of the readings, and photos far better than the ones I was able to take from the audience.

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I Speak of the City

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007 | All Things, Arts, Books, Events

At the Times Square Visitors Information Center for a poetry reading celebrating the publication of I Speak of the City: Poems of New York. The event was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, Columbia University Press and the Times Square Alliance.

Times Square Alliance

I Speak of the City

Some of the city’s and the nation’s most prominent poets were in attendance tonight: Andrea Carter Brown, “neglected master” Samuel Menashe, Tom Sleigh and Gerald Stern. I met up with J just as “Hip-Hop poet” Kevin Coval took the stage. He was followed by The Nation‘s former poetry editor, award-winning poet and distinguished professor of English at Baruch, Grace Schulman:

Grace Schulman

Harvey Shapiro came up to the podium next — still spry for his 80+ years — reading his contributions from the landmark collection of poems about the city. Shapiro, onetime editor of The New York Times Book Review, has been called the “reigning laureate of New York’s vox populi” by The Times; his pieces this evening were inspired by his New York neighborhoods.

Though most of the attendees seemed to fit the prototype of those you’d expect to see at a poetry reading (scholarly, elderly), there were a few among the audience who broke that mold. I like to think that these two young lads wandered in from the street, and stayed on, riveted by the beauty of the prose.

Young bohemians

Who says poetry is dead?

We didn’t stay for the entire event, or for the reception afterwards, but there will be another opportunity to mingle with the poets on Monday, October 29 when anthology editor Stephen Wolf and other contributors will be reading their impressions in verse at KGB Bar.

“I speak of the city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream, the city we all dream, that restlessly changes while we dream it, the city that wakes every hundred years and looks at itself in the mirror of a word and doesn’t recognize itself and goes back to sleep…”

Octavio Paz, “I Speak of the City

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