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October 10, 2010

Sunday Book Thread

I spent this week finished up two books I've mentioned in previous book threads. On is Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century; the other is the novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

Ross's book is mainly about "art music" rather than popular music, but it shed some light on one question I've had for a long time: why did "classical" music disappear from the public eye after World War II, when it was so prevalent before that? There are lots of reasons (the creation of a mass media culture via radio and then television; the impact of the movies; etc.) but the main one seems to be that musicians themselves decided to leave the audience behind. [EDIT: There is also the impact of the war itself on a whole generation of European musicians -- many felt that the world had gone out of joint and that the music should follow.] The composers felt hemmed in by convention and history, and struck out far ahead of their audiences. Cacaphony, "found" music (ambient noise), atonalism, serial and 12-tone music, minimalist music, and abstruse modernist stuff. Many composers -- who tended after the war to be full-time academics rather than full-time musicians -- turned art music into an objet d'art rather than an entertainment. What's striking to me after reading Ross's book is how little of the post World War II stuff has entered the standard repertoire. The most avid composers and consumers of "classical" music now are mainly asian: Chinese, Japanese, Korean.

Russell's The Sparrow is an interesting take on the old, old sci-fi trope of the conflicts between science and religious faith. It's a strong story, as far as it goes, but I'm left as I often am frustrated by the terribly shallow knowedge most sci-fi authors have of religious people, religious life, and theology in general. Russell's Jesuits have religious motivations for their actions -- indeed, this is central to the story -- but the theology behind those motivations is left unexamined pretty much. Either Russell assumes that her readers are already familiar with Catholic/Christian theology, or is not sure herself. This book reminded me of C. S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" books: Perelandra, Out Of the Silent Planet, and That Hideous Strength; but Lewis was much more adept (and subtle) at driving the theological point home without sacrificing the story. Still, Russell's book is a comparative rarity in modern sci-fi: a book that takes religious faith seriously. (Besides Lewis, only Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz comes to mind as a sci-fi book that treats religious faith honestly and with understanding.)

Finally, I have embarked on the literary equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: I bought all five huge volumes of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music. This is mainly to fill a gap in my education -- I know a bit of music theory, but very little of the history of music in the West -- but it's going to be tough sledding: I have about 4000 pages, more or less, to get through. I suspect it may be summer of 2011 or later before I can get back to you with a review. Still, I love Taruskin's madness, for only a madman would attempt to single-handedly encapsulate 1500+ years of musical tradition into a single work. It was a labor of more than a decade, and in the end you're still only getting one man's opinion -- but I prefer history with a single point of view and a single voice. Omnibus histories tend to be flavorless and P.C.; this one promises to have a little bite to it. (And given what I've read so far, Taruskin is no post-modernist/multiculturalist. So far the text is admirably free of academic mumbo-jumbo and post-modernist cant. But then again I'm only a hundred pages or so into the forbidding mountain of paper, so....)

Happy Sunday, Morons.

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posted by Monty at 09:20 AM

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