Kathy Kucsan, Education Director
Summer is a great chance for me to reflect on the music-related reading I have been doing and pass along my recommendations. (You can read 2022’s recommendations here, and 2021’s picks here.) As always, I would 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 What it Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You
Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas
Written (with a co-author) by an audio engineer who worked with Prince and other popular artists, this book is a new and interesting look at how music affects us. Rogers asks the question, “What makes a person fall in love with a record?” This question gave me pause, as I’m someone who loves live music and would rather go to a concert than play Apple Music. The book starts with the author’s description of a “record pull,” which is when groups of friends get together and play recorded music that is personally meaningful for each other. (Remember records? Or even compact discs?)
The author wants to know how her friends think and feel about music, and she wants to share her own thoughts and feelings. The book is a long discussion about the nuances of this and her focus on the “wild diversity of the human response to music.” As someone who shares this fascination with how music affects us, I found this an interesting read.
❌ Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
“Irreverent” and “classical music” are terms that I’ve seldom (or never) seen appearing in the same paragraph. This book is certainly irreverent and often downright crass. I’m not sure who it was written for; possibly those who know a little, or are a little curious about classical music. For me as a professional musician, I got annoyed pretty quickly. The author went to Juilliard. She tells us this many times. Of course, we’re impressed with anyone who goes to Juilliard. Then she tells us again. And again. We pretty quickly realize that this is more a memoir than any sort of guide to classical music. A rather jaded memoir.
The author distills all of Western music into a few pages in a chapter called “Classical Music is for Snobs (But It’s Also for You).” She offers micro bios of her favorite composers, gives us a list of pieces that should be in your library, and tells us that she hates medieval music. As in, really, really hates it. According to her, this is okay because it’s medieval music and not classical music. Yikes! And then there’s the chapter called “Conductors are A**holes (And Other Archetypes of the Music Industry).” You can form your own conclusion about that pronouncement.
I appreciate some good irreverence now and then, but when she described playing Paganini Caprices (fiendishly difficult etudes for violin) that were almost impossible to play because Paganini was a d**k, I just closed the book and moved on. Read the book for entertainment if you want to, but I’m not recommending it because it’s simply a superficial romp through the world of “classical” music and it seems like the writer is more focused on her one-sided witty banter than on explaining classical music to a wide audience. It’s sort of a fun read if you’re into hearing stories about Juilliard (which she refers to as “Jailyard” because of having to spend so much time in practice rooms there). If you want to hear her dish on conductors, or if you’re mad at violists and want to expand your collection of viola jokes, this book might be good for an afternoon at the beach.
❌ Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond
Okay, I fell for an ad and bought the book. It turned out to be oddly similar to Declassified, perhaps a better-written collection of anecdotes with clever-ish titles (“They Just Decomposed”). If you want to know strange facts about classical musicians, they’re all here. For example, Franz Joseph Haydn’s head was stolen after his death by some acquaintances who were into phrenology. The head finally made its way to a museum in Vienna. Was it ever reunited with the rest of Papa Haydn? I found that I just didn’t need to know any of this.
So, what about Beethoven’s skull? There’s a cliffhanger in Part I that is revealed in the final pages of the book. *Spoiler alert* Beethoven wanted doctors to find the source of his hearing loss after his death, so (skipping a few grotesque details here), parts of his skull were handed around after a few different exhumations and are now “lost to history.” That’s it.
Scan the book for entertainment, surely, but if you’re looking for substantive information about Western classical music luminaries, there are many other places to find it. This book is the repository of the trifling and weird.
Mitchell James Kaplan
Historical fiction about a real pianist’s (Kay Swift) ten-year affair with George Gershwin, I found this a fun read. In the novel, which doesn’t stray all that far from the truth, Kay falls for George during a performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Kay sort of leaves her husband, James Warburg (also a real person), but still writes Broadway showtunes with him. She dashes off to be with George while Jimmy laments, “…and Kay, up to God knows what in Paris…” Well, we do know what, I suppose.
Duke Ellington, George Balanchine, Walter Damrosch, Josephine Baker, and other notables make appearances or get name-dropped. The novel is an interesting look at the Jazz Age and its personalities and luminaries. Gershwin becomes known as the “meteor” of the Jazz Age, maybe because his life was cut short at 38 by a brain tumor (which also ended the aforementioned affair). The novel stays close to the real story, and helps us to know George Gershwin a little better. Kay, too, I suppose.
✅ Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music
Finally, a deep dive in to how and why we humans intuitively respond to music. The author is a professor, so the book is academic, but it’s accessible. He spends time telling us why “we are all musical.” He takes on the status quo idea that there are musicians (a small, elite cadre of talent show winners and other superstars) and non-musicians (hoi polloi), and his reasoning is deceptively simple: audiences have to understand music to love and appreciate it, otherwise, the superstars would have no one to play to. And “the binary division of roles into those who produce and those who consume music means that we tend to be chronically inhibited from performing in front of others.” I appreciate Ockelford’s message because it’s true. At the Center for Musical Arts, we appreciate the music everyone makes, regardless of age, length of study, aspiration, or any other factor.
This book is a fascinating read if you’re willing to drop down and wonder about the mechanics of music in concert with our complicated manner of perception and how everything combines to make us make sense of and love music. If you do read this book and want to talk about it, coffee at the Read Queen is on me!