Kathy Kucsan, Education Director
Summer Reads: A Pianist’s Memoir, A World of Sound, How Music Works, and a Violin Mystery
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This is a quote that has been attributed to a variety of people, from Frank Zappa to Elvis Costello, but no one really knows who actually said it. I think their point is that we should listen to music, make music, and learn music instead of sitting around reading about it. But I will always read books about music and musicians because there’s always something so interesting to learn, and new things to think about.
I read the following four books in the past few months and wanted to share a few words about them with you. I’m not a book reviewer, but rather a happy and intrigued reader who seeks music through the written word – even if it resembles “dancing about architecture.” I hope you find some enjoyment in reading them as I did.
And I’d like to shout out to our neighborhood independent bookstore, The Read Queen, just down the block from the Center for Musical Arts. They’d be happy to order these books for you if they’re not on the shelves.
This is a beautifully written book by one of the world’s foremost concert pianists and — bonus prize — one of Colorado Music Festival’s guest artists this summer! This is a great read in which Mr. Denk talks about growing up in New Mexico, going off to Oberlin and then Indiana (and then Juilliard) to study. He tells his story openly and frankly, but what really got to me was the way he talks about composers, repertoire, and music in general. Analogies, vivid descriptions, and his own illustrations/drawings brought music alive in my mind while reading his words. Talking about Bach: “…a journey from known to known, via unfathomable mystery. Bach has written a musical shorthand for a common question we ask ourselves, especially as we grow older: How the hell did I get here?”
Denk is very accessible online. Listen to or watch some of his concerts with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he is Artistic Partner, or check out his website where you can hear him play excerpts and discuss The Goldberg Variations, Beethoven, Ligeti, and Brahms, among other things.
At the July 17 Colorado Music Festival concert, Denk will play Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? by John Adams (you can hear Adams talk about this piece here) and The Read Queen will be on hand at the concert with a limited number signed copies of Every Good Boy Does Fine.
For a thorough review of this book, read the New York Times review by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim.
You might know David Byrne as lead guitarist/singer of The Talking Heads. He’s also a songwriter, actor, record producer, music theorist, filmmaker, photographer, writer, and actual rock star (he has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).
This book is fascinating to me as someone who thinks she knows a bit about how music actually does work. Byrne juxtaposes music history with commentary about why music affects us. He talks about global music, jazz, and how human interference with nature has compromised bird song and other forms of animal communication. It’s all here, discussed articulately and compellingly.
On page 230, Byrne discusses the definitions of music. In the past (pre-recording), music couldn’t be separated from its social context – it could only be heard live, and its temporal nature made it fleeting. Now, music (recorded) is a product, bought and sold and contained online in infinite streams that show up mostly as compressed digital files. Is this music as valid as singing around the piano in the olden days? The changes in the way music is made now “upended the function and use of music, transforming it from something we participated in to something we consumed.” Wow.
The nerd in me has been consumed with learning more and more about the main ingredient in music: sound. Kraus is a neuroscientist who explains to us that “making sense of sound is one of the hardest jobs we ask our brains to do.” Taking it further, we ask our brains (and bodies) to make sound into music, which is making sound into art. And she is preaching to me as the choir when she says that ideal music education would be a fundamental part of education as a whole. Yes! “The unmeasurable benefits of music making are no less real and no less important than the measurable ones.”
Kraus talks about birdsong, noise, and “aging and the sound brain.” All fascinating areas of thought, and topics that I think more people should pay attention to. We all live in a rich sonic environment, and we should listen more to the sounds around us because they shape our brains and “help us build the sonic world we live in.”
This book is a whodunit with a stolen Stradivarius as the star. I’ve read a few mysteries that involve classical music (Murder at the Opera, The Prague Sonata), but this is the first book that tackles the inherent racism that exists in our classical music world.
There were a few glaring, not-very-believable things running through the plot, but I was alternately entertained and disconcerted as the book went along. And I was surprised by who did it. The Violin Conspiracy is definitely on the beach read level, I’m going to leave it at that.
What are you reading this summer? We’d love to know, especially if it involves music!