Category Archives: books

posts about books

sounds, noises, listening/next week

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of words about sounds in rehearsal for grad school. (The class I’m most excited about is a ‘theories of listening’ course.) Here are a handful of interesting quotes from Noise, The Art of Noises, Audio Culture, and elsewhere:

‘Sound, estranged from life, always musical, something in itself, an occasional not a necessary element, has become for our ear what for the eye is a too familiar sight. Noise instead, arriving confused and irregular from the irregular confusion of life, is never revealed to us entirely and always holds innumerable surprises.’

– Luigi Russolo, 1916

‘Nevertheless, we must bring about a music which is like furniture—a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a music would be to respond to a need.’

– Erik Satie, 1917

‘Since the “disease” of noise permeates all music, the only hopeful course is to consider that the noise-germ, like the bacteria of cheese, is a good microbe, which may provide previously hidden delights to the listener, instead of producing musical oblivion. Although existing in all music, the noise-element has been to music as sex to humanity, essential to its existence, but impolite to mention, something to be cloaked by ignorance and silence.’

– Henry Cowell, 1929

‘Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.’

– Morton Feldman, 1958

‘I have listened to many refrigerators.’

‘In New York, Terry Riley led me fifteen blocks out of our way to hear a building ventilator. I wonder what microbes hear?’

– Pauline Oliveros, 1968

‘Yeh, I love sound. It’s sound which is living, which has own living self. And each sound has its own cycle. And we don’t have same sound at all. If we have a clear, clean ear, we could find differences between even the same note I think. You understand what I say?’

– Toru Takemitsu in interview with Feldman, 1977

‘For we must not forget that music remains a unique commodity; to take on meaning, it requires an incompressible lapse of time, that of its own duration. thus the gramophone, conceived as a recorder to stockpile time, became instead its principle user. conceived as a word preserver, it became a sound diffuser. The major contradiction of repetition is in evidence here: people must devote their time to producing the means to buy recordings of other people’s time, losing in the process not only the use of their own time, but also the time required to use other people’s time. Stockpiling then becomes a substitute, not a preliminary condition, for use. People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear. Use-time and exchange-time destroy one another.’

– Jacques Attali, 1977

‘Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’

– Brian Eno, 1978

On the agenda this week: Written on Skin + Into the Little Hill. Plus packing parties aplenty.

What’s on my nightstand: cramming in as much ‘pleasure’ reading as possible before school starts: Henry James [The Wings of the Dove is nothing short of diabolical], Edith Wharton, and Luigi Pirandello. Plus more essays on sound studies, plus a new book on ‘postopera’.

dissolving margins/next week

My Brilliant Friend wasn’t nearly as tautly written or psychologically intricate as The Lost Daughter, but it was vivid and intriguing enough that I’d like to find the time for the next three in the Neapolitan quartet. The most impressive passages were those concerning Lila’s episodes of ‘dissolving margins’, as related by her ‘brilliant’ friend Elena, the narrator of the book (which happens often, emphasizing the extent of their intense emotional & intellectual understanding):

‘Her heart had started beating uncontrollably. She had begun to feel horror at the cries emerging from the throats of all those who were moving about on the terrace amid the smoke, amid the explosions, as if the sound obeyed new, unknown laws. Her nausea increased, the dialect had become unfamiliar, the way our wet throats bathed the words in the liquid of saliva was intolerable. A sense of repulsion had invested all the bodies in movement, their bone structure, the frenzy that shook them. How poorly made we are, she had thought, how insufficient. The broad shoulders, the arms, the legs, the ears, noses, eyes seemed to her attributes of monstrous beings who had fallen from some corner of the black sky. And the disgust, who knows why, was concentrated in particular on her brother Rino, the person who was closest to her, the person she loved most….On the occasion when she told me that story, Lila also said that the sensation she called dissolving margins, although it had come on her distinctly only that once, wasn’t completely new to her. For example, she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges. And the day her father threw her out the window she had felt absolutely certain, as she was flying toward the asphalt, that small, very friendly reddish animals were dissolving the composition of the street, transforming it into a smooth, soft material. But that New Year’s Eve she had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature. This had deeply shaken her.’

On the agenda this week: signing a lease, catching up on work after a week serving as Juror #9 in an attempted murder trial, proofreading a rock music syllabus, practicing Bach inventions until my fingers get numb…and then a nice reward of Mahler 8 under the stars in the arms of a wonderful person.

What’s on my nightstand: moving from last week’s Florence reads to a nice hefty Venice read.

an infinite amount of space/next week

‘It leads to the most incredible sounds and musical actions, if you really think you have an infinite amount of time and space. You don’t need to think when it is finished, or whether anybody is listening or not: you don’t care whether you die in the meantime, or if the sound may be too long for you to finish playing, or if the space you need is greater than the hall, or your instrument, or your own body can contain. You have an infinite amount of space.’

From Stockhausen on Music. Stockhausen’s music has been giving me panic attacks for years, so I thought it was about time to read more about him, and I’m glad I did. He still scares the shit out of me, but in a different way, plus I’ve gained a lot of insight into his celestial existence and thought processes.

On the agenda this week: Satie & Debussy (my favorite composers to write fanfic about!) and my annual day trip to Woodstock for the Escher String Quartet.

What’s on my nightstand: Florence by way of George Eliot and Dante.

cassandra at the wedding/next week

Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding is best drunk in quickly, like a shot of hard liquor: read if possible at the same pace as the events unfolding in the novel (in a day or two), while listening to Bach, breathless as you watch the action & hear the captivating, rhythmic yet gloriously atonal voice of the narrator(s). It’s always refreshing to read a first person perspective of depression that doesn’t make you want to throw a shoe at the speaker, and there were only a handful of times I felt like throwing anything at Cassandra, the identical twin of Judith, who has found a nice ole feller to marry–much to Cassandra’s terror & resentment. Instead of being annoyed by Cassandra, I found myself relating to her candid way of summarizing her debilitatingly heavy emotions: ‘But I seldom get praised for the hard things I do, and I do some of the hardest things. Things like waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night, all all alone except when I’m with someone; and it’s getting harder and harder for me to be really with anyone’; ‘I’d got more or less out of the habit of eating’; ‘I think I might almost have told him how I felt–not just about this but about everything–my classes, my job, my entanglements, my nights turning into days and then back again with no firm markers, no dawns or sunsets or landmarks, except maybe the bridge, and the endless belt of plates and glasses and toothpaste and towels and couches’. And then her first experiences of restlessness, of wanting to get back to her life, helped along by the words of her analyst: ‘I always hoped I could bring you to understand that there is such a thing as a whole life–a way of life–and a reason for being that is strong enough to protect you from every little whistling call of the wild.’ It’s a charming portrait of a 24-year-old woman and her mental illness, but it’s an even more charming portrait of a dysfunctional family trying to make the best of a never-not-stressful event (a wedding) in their own quirky, overly erudite, sometimes hilarious, always booze-soaked way. As Deborah Eisenberg states in the delightful afterword: ‘Of course, nothing illustrates so vividly as family the essentially unsatisfactory nature of being a person.’

A busy week ahead: Bitter Music, Delusion of the Fury, As You Like It in the parking lotKafka on the Shore, Hello Kitties with an old friend, Ives + new music with a new friend, and yet another trippy trip to Dia Dream House with friends old & new.

What’s on my nightstand: Partch research, rock music research, old-school Harper Lee (and maybe new-school if I can stomach it), and George Eliot in Florence to start winding down the summer.

like a sound hurts inside a jar

‘Light lopes along the wall. We are driving west, there is a limitless green limit of the horizon. Clouds bigger than clouds. I am wondering about the color green. Why it hurts like a sound hurts inside a jar.’

There were so many lovely moments in Anne Carson’s Plainwater, though I experienced an unsettling déjà vu a few times, when I first drank it all in throughout a restless night last week. Lines such as those about a seed burrowing itself in a wolf’s ear and throwing off its sense of equilibrium, which I had already read almost verbatim in Glass, Irony and God, felt a bit like an author not-so-carefully recycling their own words. Strange, then, that the various repetitions and rediscoveries of rereading the five sections of prose-poetry is so much more enjoyable now than reading it the first around. Anne Carson does seem to rely on repetition (of words, of rhythms, of images, of ideas) to properly convey the rich sensations one experiences while reading her work. So maybe my first impressions that restless night were too hurried, too muddled. My ears were attuned to certain details but not yet to the overall flow of the book.

Continue reading

it puts the heart in my chest on wings

Every page of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho’s fragments made my heart ache with its stunning simplicity. Many of them told a whole heartbreaking story with only a handful of words (‘you burn me’; ‘I would not think to touch the sky with two arms’; ‘having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak’; ‘do I still long for my virginity?’; ‘I used to weave crowns’; ‘Leto and Niobe were beloved friends’; ‘with anger spreading in the chest / to guard against a vainly barking tongue’). This one, more complete & detailed, gives a fuller picture:

Continue reading

invisible realities/next week

Rereading Swann’s Way was one of the best things I’ve done all summer. I was captivated and moved by so many passages about memory and sleep and love and death and identity, but the passage about Swann’s and Odette’s ‘love theme’ was undeniably my favorite:

‘The year before, at a soiree, he had heard a piece of music performed on the piano and violin. At first, he had experienced only the physical quality of the sounds secreted by the instruments. And it had been a keen pleasure when, below the little line of the violin, slender, unyielding, compact, and commanding, he had seen the mass of the piano part all at once struggling to rise in a liquid swell, multiform, undivided, smooth, and colliding like the purple tumult of the waves when the moonlight charms them and lowers their pitch by half a tone. But at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish and outline clearly, or give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly charmed, he had tried to gather up and hold on to the phrase or harmony–he himself did not know which–that was passing by him and that had opened his soul so much wider, the way the smells of certain roses circulating in the damp evening air have the property of dilating our nostrils. Maybe it was because of his ignorance of music that he had been capable of receiving so confused an impression, the kind of impression that is, however, perhaps the only one which is purely musical, immaterial, entirely original, irreducible to any other order of impression. An impression of this kind is, for an instant, so to speak, sine materia. No doubt the notes we hear then tend already, depending on their loudness and their quantity, to spread out before our eyes over surfaces of varying dimensions, to trace arabesques, to give us sensations of breadth, tenuousness, stability, whimsy. But the notes vanish before these sensations are sufficiently formed in us not to be submerged by those already excited by the succeeding or even simultaneous notes. And this impression would continue to envelop with its liquidity and its “mellowness” the motif that at a times emerge from it, barely discernible, immediately to dive under and disappear, known only by the particular pleasure they give, impossible to describe, to recall, to name, ineffable–if memory, like a laborer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of the waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases, did not allow us to compare them to those that follow them and to differentiate them. And so, scarcely had the delicious sensation which Swann had felt died away than his memory at once furnished him with a transcription that was summary and temporary but at which he could glance while the piece continued, so that already, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer impossible to grasp. He could picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical groupings, its notation, its expressive value; he had before him this thing which is no longer pure music, which is drawing, architecture, thought, and which allows us to recall the music. This time he had clearly distinguished one phrase rising for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had immediately proposed to him particular sensual pleasures which he had never imagined before hearing it, which he felt could be introduced to him by nothing else, and he had experienced for it something like an unfamiliar love.

And a bit later:

With a slow rhythm it led him first here, then there, then elsewhere, toward a happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and precise. And then suddenly, having reached a point from which he was preparing to follow it, after an instant’s pause, abruptly it changed direction, and with a new movement, quicker, slighter, more melancholy, incessant, and sweet, it carried him off with it toward unfamiliar vistas. Then it disappeared. He wished passionately to see it a third time. And it did indeed reappear but without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him, indeed, a sensual pleasure that was less profound. But once he has back at home he needed it, he was like a man into whose life a woman he has glimpsed for only a moment as she passed by has introduced the image of a new sort of beauty that increases the value of his own sensibility, without his even knowing if he will ever see this woman again whom he loves already and of whom he knows nothing, not even her name….Swann found within himself, in the recollection of the phrase he had heard, in certain sonatas he asked people to play for him, to see if he would not discover it in them, the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe and to which, as if the music had had a sort of sympathetic influence on the moral dryness from which he suffered, he felt in himself once again the desire and almost the strength to devote his life.’

But ‘then he stopped thinking about it.’ And then, miracle of miracles:

‘Now, scarcely a few minutes after the young pianist had begun playing at Mme. Verdurin’s, suddenly, after a high note held for a long time through two measures he saw it approaching, escaping from under that prolonged sonority stretched like a curtain of sound hiding the mystery of its incubation, he recognized it, secret, murmuring, and, divided, the airy and redolent phrase that he loved. And it was so particular, it had a charm so individual, which no other charm could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had encountered in a friend’s drawing room a person whom he had admired in the street and despaired of ever finding again.’

This whole sequence makes my mind swirl; it’s so beautiful, and it so perfectly captures that longing for something you can’t quite pin down but would recognize if you ever encountered it again.

On the agenda this week: travel arrangements and Travel Notes.

What’s on my nightstand: Noise and The Art of Noise.

sounds that become musical through our perception of them/next week

A couple weeks ago I read The Spectral Piano by the inimitable Marilyn Nonken. Although some of the ideas felt repetitive and even strained at times, for the most part the book was effective at illustrating the lineage of spectral piano music, from Liszt to Scriabin to Murail and beyond, and especially at exploring the relationships between seemingly conflicted composers or ideologies, as in the following passage:

‘A revealing parallel may be drawn between Murail and, surprisingly, Cage. Murail has expressed distaste for Cage’s work. He has described Cage’s innovations in negative terms. He has characterized his own work in composition as “an attempt to rebuild a coherent sound world, which was destroyed due to many destructive experiences, such as…the aleatory experiments of John Cage”. However, both Cage’s and Murail’s works reveal composers with similar affinities: for sounds that become musical through our perception of them; for process, which animates the work and directs the evolution of its discrete elements; and for discipline, required of the musician who attempts to realize the potentialities of the score….Murail, like Cage, saw chance as a way to access a richer world of performance possibilities.’

This also ties in with Martin Iddon’s New Music at Darmstadt, which goes into the interactions of and various feuds between Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen, Tudor, and Cage at Darmstadt throughout the 1950s, and which questions the idea of ‘the Darmstadt School’. But more on that some other time.

On the agenda this week: grad school preparations (apartment hunting, listening to/thinking about rock music in anticipation of my first TA position, studying for placement exams, practicing piano, reading as much as possible) peppered with plenty of time spent with wonderful people.

What’s on my nightstand: books about Stockhausen and Harry Partch balanced with books about neurotic women.

from copulation we went on to spleen

After reading Pages from the Goncourt Journals (forty years of whiny, charming, self-obsessed, remarkably detailed journals best summed up in the authors’ description of the conversations that took place during their literary pow wows with ‘From copulation we went on to spleen’), I spent almost all of May immersed in a spin-off binge inspired by the two brothers’ snarky commentary. It was difficult to choose exactly which trashy nineteenth-century French literature to dive into, but I ended up settling on one each by Zola, Gautier, Daudet, and Flaubert (plus one about Flaubert).

Continue reading

bare things/next week

I just read The Waves for the fifth time; it was as moving as ever. It’s the kind of book in which you can fully submerge yourself, letting the layers of consciousness and beauty fall in rhythmic waves through your mind. You can read it over and over, connecting with different characters in different ways each time. This time around I had the strongest reaction to Jinny and Rhoda (to be discussed as I catch up on blogging the past two months of books read…) but Bernard always gets me with this passage at the end, finally exploring the solitude he has so feared:

‘How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.’

On the agenda this week: hanging out with music librarians, The Sound and the Fury, and Dimensions of Time and Silence.

What’s on my nightstand: more Virginia Woolf plus a novel trying to be a puzzle.