music notes · stuff I read

Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day by Clemency Burton-Hill

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
‘Year of Wonder is an absolute treat – the most enlightening way to be guided through the year.’ Eddie Redmayne

Classical music for everyone – an inspirational piece of music for every day of the year, celebrating composers from the medieval era to the present day, written by award-winning violinist and BBC Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill.

Have you ever heard a piece of music so beautiful it stops you in your tracks? Or wanted to discover more about classical music but had no idea where to begin?

Year of Wonder is a unique celebration of classical music by an author who wants to share its diverse wonders with others and to encourage a love for this genre in all readers, whether complete novices or lifetime enthusiasts.

Clemency chooses one piece of music for each day of the year, with a short explanation about the composer to put it into context, and brings the music alive in a modern and playful way, while also extolling the positive mindfulness element of giving yourself some time every day to listen to something uplifting or beautiful. Thoughtfully curated and expertly researched, this is a book of classical music to keep you company: whoever you are, wherever you’re from.

‘The only requirements for enjoying classical music are open ears and an open mind.’
Clemency Burton-Hill

When one’s mother is a church organist, one grows up with a pretty solid understanding of classical music. I started piano lessons with my mom when I was five and more formal lessons at age eight. I played the oboe and flute in band and sang in choir. And while I no longer perform, I do still practice (occasionally – see also: paraphrasing Elizabeth Bennet and the old saw about not playing as well as I would wish because I don’t actually practice as much as I should). Over the years I’ve amassed a rather sizable classical music collection covering all sorts of genres.

So, obviously I was pretty interested when Clemency Burton-Hill’s new book Year of Wonder came across my radar. A one-piece-per-day devotional, if you will, designed to dive deep into the classical music catalog. Sign me up. How much would be new to me and how much would I already know?

As it turns out, I was familiar with probably 25-30% of Burton-Hill’s recommendations. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, any opera aria except for a few of the very early-genre ones, anything by Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin I already knew. But starting with Hildegard von Bingen on January 3rd (yes, that Hildegard von Bingen who not only was an abbess and philosopher and who knows what all but was also a composer of monophonic songs in early Church music) I found so many “new” composers and less-familiar songs from favorites to track down. I am particularly deficient in late twentieth and twenty-first century composers, especially very new composers in their twenties and thirties such as Max Richter (who I know) and Ólafur Arnalds (who I had not heard, as far as I know, and I really need to).

Now, as with any list like this, a few of my favorites are missing. Some very familiar pieces like Rhapsody in Blue, the Enigma Variations, and any ballet music from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev do not make an appearance. I was also surprised to Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul left off. However, Burton-Hill has very consciously tried to make an inclusive list to try and get outside the white/male boundaries classical music has tried to keep around itself. The genre has traditionally been very gate-keepy so a conscious effort to shine a light on women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ composers is very welcome. This is also a very wide-ranging selection through all sub-genres of classical music, from early Church mono- and polyphony, to settings of traditional folk songs, to Masses, symphonies, chamber music, jazz, ragtime, atonal, solo instrumental, and on and on and on.

What I do think this list needs are recommendations for which recording to listen to. Some more recent or less popular pieces, such as from Arnalds, will have few or only one recording to choose from but something like “Che gelida manina” from La Bohème will have hundreds available. For instance, when pulling tracks from my own collection I stopped counting versions of “Casta diva” from Norma at six and that was only the traditional recordings. I didn’t count any that had been arranged for instrumental-only or electronica-crossover versions. Although, Burton-Hill has curated playlists by month on Spotify and Apple Music – so if you use either of those services, search for “Clemency” (with the blue tick mark) in Spotify or “Year of Wonder” at Apple Music. I, however, am extra and like making work for myself so I’m pulling multiple versions, favorites, and complete works rather than movements to make my own playlist. It’s kind of exhausting but fun.

Year of Wonder is out October 30.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher.

mini-review · music notes · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

33947154Summary from Goodreads:
In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In the wake of the nightclub attacks in Paris, he recalls how he sought refuge as a teenager in music, at shows, and wonders whether the next generation of young Muslims will not be afforded that opportunity now. While discussing the everyday threat to the lives of black Americans, Abdurraqib recounts the first time he was ordered to the ground by police officers: for attempting to enter his own car.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a volume of sharp, insightful criticism about the intersections of music and culture, specifically punk, rap, and being a black, Muslim man who has often been the only brown face at a show, but also grief, loss, and hope. Abdurraqib is also a poet and it shows in the way he constructs his sentences: “No one decides when the people we love are actually gone. May we all be buried on our own terms.”

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy of this book.

music notes · stuff I read

Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano by Andrea Avery

Summary from Goodreads:
Andrea, already a promising and ambitious classical pianist at twelve, was diagnosed with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that threatened not just her musical aspirations but her ability to live a normal life. As Andrea navigates the pain and frustration of coping with RA alongside the usual travails of puberty, college, sex, and just growing-up, she turns to music—specifically Franz Schubert’s sonata in B-flat D960, and the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein for strength and inspiration. The heartbreaking story of this mysterious sonata—Schubert’s last, and his most elusive and haunting—is the soundtrack of Andrea’s story.

Sonata is a coming-of-age story that explores a “Janus-head miracle”—Andrea’s extraordinary talent and even more extraordinary illness—in a manner reminiscent Brain on Fire and Poster Child. As the goshawk becomes a source of both devotion and frustration for Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, so the piano comes to represent both struggle and salvation for Andrea in this extraordinary debut.

Sonata is a beautifully written, unflinching look at how a pianist has fought and accommodated her disease, even as it tried to close off her instrument. This is not Inspiration Lit. Avery doesn’t triumph over adversity to nab a Juilliard scholarship, recording contract, and massive acclaim as a concert pianist. She allows us to see her anger, her loss at not being given a fair shake to see where her talent might take her before RA decided that she wasn’t allowed to know if her joints would reliably function. That some days are good, some days are bad, and some days are awful. How being an adult with a chronic illness and disability impacted her relationships, romantic and otherwise. Mixed into Avery’s story are the stories of Franz Schubert, a gifted composer ahead of his time who wrote the B-flat sonata that calls to her, and Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in WWI.

Avery has a very nice writing style.  Straightforward but also illustrative without getting ornate. Someday, I hope she writes about being an English teacher, too, since she gives us a small glimpse into her life as an instructor and it sounds like she can give us some stories there, too.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

music notes · stuff I read

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Summary from Goodreads:
The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off — and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice

Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.” And at twenty-one, she found “the one,” the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned. Then, in a London cafe, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence.

In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.

Gone is a really interesting memoir about musical talent and identity. Kym is a violinist who is one of the true child prodigies, who conquers the the toughest pieces in the violin literature at an impossibly young age, and whose 1696 Stradivarius violin was stolen at the height of her career. Her memoir looks at not just her career, but the toll it took on her, how much her career and training pushed against her Korean upbringing, and how she succumbed to a bad relationship that may later have led to some really bad decisions.

The writing style is very interesting. It isn’t very polished but winds around, almost stream of consciousness at times. She really tries to get at the heart of performing at such a high level so young. Kym also pushes into the period of depression and mourning she went through after her violin was stolen.  A violinist’s relationship to the violin as instrument becomes very personal, almost like a child or a partner, which is a much different relationship that one I am familiar with as a pianist.  As a pianist, you can’t tote your instrument around and get to make-do with what you find at your venue (if you’re super-famous/fancy/loaded, you can rent the piano of your choice as you tour).

You may start reading Gone to see whether Kym gets her violin back, but you’ll stay for her journey.

Edited to add: Kym is releasing an album of violin music played on her Strad on July 18, 2017.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

BEA · mini-review · music notes · stuff I read

Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock

Summary from Goodreads:
“Probably the most complete and absolute lack of talent ever publicly displayed.” —Life Magazine

Madame Jenkins couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket: despite that, in 1944 at the age of 76, she played Carnegie Hall to a capacity audience and had celebrity fans by the score. Her infamous 1940s recordings are still highly-prized today. In his well-researched and thoroughly entertaining biography, Darryl W. Bullock tells of Florence Foster Jenkins meteoric rise to success and the man who stood beside her, through every sharp note.

Florence was ridiculed for her poor control of timing, pitch, and tone, and terrible pronunciation of foreign lyrics, but the sheer entertainment value of her caterwauling packed out theatres around the United States, with the ‘singer’ firmly convinced of her own talent, partly thanks to the devoted attention for her husband and manager St Clair Bayfield. Her story is one of triumph in the face of adversity, courage, conviction and of the belief that with dedication and commitment a true artist can achieve anything.

*Note: This is not the movie tie-in book, which can be found here and which I have not read.

I knew of Florence Foster Jenkins back when I was still singing (read: before I ruined my voice in college).  My voice teacher brought her up whenever she thought my singing was too “wooden” – Madame had a terrible voice, but so was very entertaining.  But I had never actually heard a recording of her voice.

Florence Foster Jenkins came out to somewhere between “good” and “ok.” The actual book construction feels a little uneven and jumps around which gives the biography a “soapy” feel (he quotes the wretchedly bitchy Simon Doonan – in a soundbite that should just die and I’m not going to repeat it here – who wasn’t even born when Madame died in 1944). However, what Bullock did do was evoke a lot of sympathy for his subject.  Florence Foster Jenkins was a moneyed Society lady who clearly LOVED classical music, had once been a talented classical pianist, and had the wherewithal to indulge her passion despite (or because of) her lack of voice.

You can still purchase Madame’s recordings (just search “Florence Foster Jenkins” on iTunes and it appears they are being reissues on vinyl/CD). I can only take listening to the iTunes samples because it’s just too awful. The recordings were made when she was in her 60s/70s and if she ever had a decent voice it is long gone. It’s too cruel to laugh at her for merely being an eccentric elderly lady.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher at Book Expo America.

mini-review · music notes · stuff I read

Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen

Summary from Goodreads:
From the beloved host and creator of NPR’s All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts comes an essential oral history of modern music, told in the voices of iconic and up-and-coming musicians, including Dave Grohl, Jimmy Page, Michael Stipe, Carrie Brownstein, Smokey Robinson, and Jeff Tweedy, among others—published in association with NPR Music.

Is there a unforgettable song that changed your life?

NPR’s renowned music authority Bob Boilen posed this question to some of today’s best-loved musical legends and rising stars. In Your Song Changed My Life, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), St. Vincent, Jónsi (Sigur Rós), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Cat Power, David Byrne (Talking Heads), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Jenny Lewis, Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Sleater-Kinney), Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Trey Anastasio (Phish), Jackson Browne, Valerie June, Philip Glass, James Blake, and other artists reflect on pivotal moments that inspired their work.

For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, it was discovering his sister’s 45 of The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” A young St. Vincent’s life changed the day a box of CDs literally fell off a delivery truck in front of her house. Cat Stevens was transformed when he heard John Lennon cover “Twist and Shout.” These are the momentous yet unmarked events that have shaped these and many other musical talents, and ultimately the sound of modern music.

A diverse collection of personal experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, Your Song Changed My Life illustrates the ways in which music is revived, restored, and revolutionized. It is also a testament to the power of music in our lives, and an inspiration for future artists and music lovers.

Amazing contributors include: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, Wild Flag), Smokey Robinson, David Byrne (Talking Heads), St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), James Blake, Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Trey Anastasio (Phish), Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Sturgill Simpson, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Cat Power, Jackson Browne, Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), Philip Glass, Jónsi (Sigur Rós), Hozier, Regina Carter, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, and others), Courtney Barnett, Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers), Leon Bridges, Sharon Van Etten, and many more.

This is going to be a very quick review, since the value of Your Song Changed My Life is in the reading.  I really enjoyed the combination of interview, musicology, and memoir that Boilen used to construct each chapter of the book.  He also got a nice range of artists, although I would have liked one or two beyond Phillip Glass who leaned more toward classical music (just my personal preference).  Boilen has a huge musical range – he would have to, given the sheer number of musical acts he sees every year – and he makes it all very readable.  Some of the artists’ inspirations are very surprising.  Definitely a great book for any aspiring musician.

Dear FTC: I started with a DRC of this book then bought a hardcover.

Commonplace Book · dies · music notes · stuff I read

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The second I heard that Alexander Chee had a novel coming out about a Belle Époque opera singer with a secret I went on a mission to figure out how I might ferret out an advance copy.  I put The Queen of the Night on pre-order in hardback but I knew I was going to need time to read, and re-read, and digest.  Basically, I just want to snuggle the book and pet it because it is that good so I’ll try and write something reasonably coherent.

Lilliet Berne is what is known as a Falcon soprano (named for the first such singer, Cornélie Falcon), with a voice of incredible darkness and power but a very fragile physical instrument.  Lilliet’s secrets have secrets, secrets that could be deadly.  When she is offered an original role, an accolade that would cap her career, the opera’s libretto threatens to bring her secrets to light.  The librettist is an unknown, the novel it is based on unknown to Lilliet.  As she recalls her life, delving through many layers of intrigue and disguise to determine which person betrayed her, the reader begins to wonder: who is Lilliet and what will happen to her?

The Queen of the Night is a novel at the intersection of Romanticism and Realism, two major movements in nineteenth-century art.  The surreal nesting of Lilliet’s many-layered life inside the harsh reality of an orphan in Paris during the Second Empire.  The sturm und drang of the opera next to the monotony of being a grisette in Empress Eugénie’s vast wardrobe.  The glittering heights of celebrity outline the horrifying years when Lilliet is treated as a possession.  Were this to become an opera, Verdi would have to compose the music.

Throughout the novel, Lilliet muses on the ideas of fate, hubris, and vengeance, giving us a glorious line:

…the gods did not kill for hubris – for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn. (p46)

Lilliet is the Queen of the Night – a role she loves for its dark power and famous for the fiendishly difficult “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”/”The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,” is Carmen – trapped by the hand of cards dealt to her, is Violetta – caught between her heart and her past as a courtesan, is Leonora – the casualty of a revenge plot decades in the making.  As Lilliet notes: “victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat.”  As I was re-reading the book, I noticed that I wanted to listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pucinni’s Tosca.  Odd, because Giovanni is a baritone role, clearly not something Lilliet would sing, and Tosca did not premiere until 1900, well after the events of the book.  But there is something echoed in Lilliet’s struggle against what she views as a curse brought on by hubris: Giovanni brazenly inviting his doom to supper and Tosca singing her haunting aria “Vissi d’arte” about art and prayer.

Tucked in among all the activity with circuses and Emperors and celebrity and opera, there is the simple story of a teenage girl who believes she is to blame for a karmic misfortune.  In her haste to get away she commits error after error as any inexperienced, grieving teenager might do, stumbling into misfortune and by sheer strength of will and cleverness keeping herself alive.  She becomes the famous Lilliet, leaving the adult woman to salvage what is left of the little girl from the Minnesota prairie.  Whatever your thoughts on opera as a music form, this coming-of-age tale with its mysterious twists and turns is the heart of Chee’s novel.  A brilliant book to start 2016. 

Bellissima.  Bellissimo. Bravo.

PS: If you aren’t familiar with opera – it isn’t all Valkyries with blond braids and Viking hats, trust me – I suggest the following list of discs to check out:
Renée Fleming, “The Beautiful Voice“, “Bel Canto“, “Renée Fleming
Jonas Kaufmann, “The Verdi Album“, “The Best of Jonas Kaufmann
Bryn Terfel, “Bad Boys“, 1996 Don Giovanni recording
Joyce DiDonato, “Drama Queens“, “Diva Divo
José Carreras, “Passion
The #1 Opera Album and The #1 Opera Album II – these are compilations with both older and newer recordings but wide range

Dear FTC: I did a first-read of this novel using a DRC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and then I bought a copy because why the hell wouldn’t I?

music notes · stuff I read

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Summary from Goodreads:
Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign — Desforges Pianos — he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner.
Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously hidden is brought into view. Luc, the atelier’s master, proves an indispensable guide to the history and art of the piano. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them, from amateur pianists to the craftsmen who make the mechanism sing. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is at once a beguiling portrait of a Paris not found on any map and a tender account of the awakening of a lost childhood passion.

I picked up a copy of this book quite some time ago – certainly before I moved and was able to purchase my piano – but never got around to reading it until now.  This is a lovely short memoir – with a bit of history about piano construction thrown in for flavor – that demonstrates that a chance meeting can cause the return of a childhood passion.  For Carhart, that was the discovery of a piano restoration workshop/store in his Paris neighborhood; he had played a lot as a child but had let his lessons lapse.  Befriending Luc and purchasing a restored piano brought his love of music back.

I’ve been there.  Shortly after I moved into my new house I watched a documentary on the making of Steinway pianos, visited the Steinway website out of curiosity, asked for a catalogue to be sent via email, and then got an email from the local Steinway dealer about an upcoming factory sale.  Fast forward about a month and I purchased a beautiful upright – I play more now than I did during my last year of high school when I had a full schedule of practice and performances.