Book Notes: Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip

Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip
by Robert Hunter, Stephen Peters, Chuck Wills, Dennis McNally
481 pages. Dorling Kindersly, 2003. $50

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What can you say about an illustrated book about the Dead? It’s fun, disjointed, fragmentary, but it fits perfectly with the Dead and their style of living and music-making. In the usual Dorling Kindersly style, this book contains lots of sidebars with illustrations, scattered all over the place. Since I bought this book more than two years ago (this addition November 2006), I’ve found myself reaching for it when I just want to experience a bit of Deadiana, or when listening to a Dead concert to look up the context.

There’s no narrative, other than time itself. The timeline, which is the thread through this book, moves from the earliest days to Jerry’s death and beyond, covering the albums, important concerts, drug busts and all the other highlights of the Dead’s career. If you are, or ever have been, a Deadhead, you’ll want this book to leaf through while listening to live Dead shows.

Essential Music: Morton Feldman

Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.

Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)

And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…

There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.

Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.

Book Review: J. S. Bach – Oxford Composer Companion

J. S. Bach – Oxford Composer Companion
Edited by Malcolm Boyd
626 pages. Oxford University Press, 2003. $30

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For those curious about the life and context behind the music, there are two ways to approach a composer with such a rich life and a diverse musical output such as Bach: the first is through a biography, which tells a linear story of the man, his music, his family and his times. We can follow his life through the different cities in which he lived, and look at his music chronologically, seeing how he built on each stage of his life to create increasingly complex and beautiful music.The other way, which is apparent in a book like the Oxford Composer Companion to Bach, is the artificial, yet none the less useful method of providing information in encyclopedic form. Here, there is no chronology, but each name, each work, each city and episode in his life is listed in alphabetical order. Granted, for readers approaching Bach’s life for the first time, a biography would likely be more useful and efficient. Yet browsing a book like this, allowing chance to take over as you flip from page to page, yields a unique glimpse of Bach’s life and music.

I must confess to being a book-lover, and, especially, a dictionary lover. I enjoy browsing encyclopedias and dictionaries, and have bookcases full of them. (I can trace this back to when I was about 8 years old, and my mother won an encyclopedia on the television game show, Jeopardy. I recall with great pleasure the afternoons spend leafing through the 20 volumes of that storehouse of knowledge.) While not all people may share this passion, those who do, and who are interested in Bach, will find this book to be ideal.

With entries on people, places, instruments, and, of course, all of Bach’s works, this book contains everything you could want to know about Bach’s life and music, and then some. Leaping from entry to entry, one can wander through an explanation of Suites to read about Minuets, how they are played Alternativement, questions of rhythm, and how Bach treats these questions. Each place Bach lived incites the reader to explore the entries for the works he composed there and the musicians he met and worked with. With more than 600 pages, this encyclopedia of all things Bach, with entries by more than thirty of the world’s most esteemed Bach scholars, will delight all true lovers of his music.

Bach’s key works are treated in longer articles, but there are many entries that deal with general musical questions and instruments. The book also has entries for each of Bach’s cantatas (something no other currently available book has) as well as a full listing of Bach’s works in an appendix.

I cannot praise this book too highly – it is the book I refer to the most when curious about any aspect of Bach’s life and works, and it belongs on the shelves of all Bach-lovers.

Book Review: Author, Author, by David Lodge

Author, Author
David Lodge
352 pages. Viking Books, 2004 (US edition). $25
389 pages. Sacker and Warburg, 2004 (UK edition). £17

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This literary year has seen two major novels, by authors from England and Ireland, examining Henry James and parts of his later life. The first (Colm Toibin’s The Master, which I found to be little more than a literary fart), has, as of this writing, been shortlisted for the Booker prize.

The second, David Lodge’s Author, Author, deserves much greater attention, but since Lodge’s goal was to write a novel, not a pamphlet proving Henry James’ homosexuality, it has not gotten the same amount of exposure, and, alas, does not seem to be in the running for any major prizes. What a shame! Of the two books, Lodge’s is the better book in every aspect. Author, Author begins at the end, as Henry James is near his death, before heading backwards to examine part of the Master’s life. In Lodge’s hands, Henry becomes a real person, with real concerns, and through his friendship with George du Maurier (author of Trilby), his experience in the theater, and his return to fiction after five years of attempting to make a success of himself on the stage.

But this book is much more than a fictionalized account of part of Henry James’ life. Lodge is clearly a fan of Henry James’ work, and the book ends up as a homage to it, almost a love letter to James (in the platonic manner). Lodge creates a believable character in his novel, unlike Toibin whose James acts like a portemanteau on which the author has merely hung his ideas.

Only in the final pages, when Lodge slips out of the narrative and becomes a Thackerian observer, does one realize exactly why Lodge seems to have written this book. As the author talks about the Master, he praises him, summing up his life and legacy, and, at the end, points out that while Henry James did not perhaps achieve the fame and fortune that he had tried to amass during his lifetime, he certainly has in the decades since his death.

As an unconditional fan of Henry James, I was delighted by this book. The characterization is realistic, the story itself, though familiar, is depicted with subtlety, and, in the end, the entire point of the novel – to praise Henry James and thank him for his great work – is eminently satisfying. Perhaps those less familiar with, or not interested in, James will find this disturbing, but Lodge paints this story with such grace and sympathy that one cannot but shed a tear at the end when Henry James dies. “So it has come at last,” he said, “the distinguished thing.”

Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

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About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Crapware for Mac: A New iTunes Plug-In

So this company called TuneUp Media announced today the availability of a plug-in for iTunes for Mac that is supposed to make tagging and adding cover art easier. I downloaded the demo, installed it, and went to try and figure out what to do. There’s an application that opens, but doesn’t have any commands in its menus (other than a File menu that lets you quit it), and there’s supposed to be something that integrates with iTunes. No documentation, so I went to the website to look for help. Nothing telling me what to do, how to get started. I eventually found that it’s supposed to add something to the right side of my iTunes window; nothing there.

I figured it was time to uninstall it. Well, no help on that either. It turns out you need to remove the application (in /Applications) and then a plug-in in /Library/iTunes/iTunes Plug-ins. (If you don’t uninstall the latter, you’ll get an AppleScript dialog looking for the application each time you launch iTunes. It toook a while for me to find it, because there’s nothing on the web site explaining how to remove the crapware.

What can I say? Another Windows company releasing a lame port of their software for Mac, that can’t even be bothered to include documentation (or even a link to the Help page on their website), and, especially, not even an uninstaller? Geez, what a bunch of losers…

Follow-up: Read the comments for more on uninstalling this crapware. An intrepid reader found that there’s more to remove, and that there’s a hidden uninstaller. I guess I really should use my copy of AppZapper more often. I always forget about it, but it makes sense, because it’ll find the tiny files that litter up my Mac.

Follow-up follow-up: So out of curiosity, I re-downloaded the crapware, then reinstalled it to see what AppZapper could do. It only removed a few files. I suspect that TuneUp doesn’t install a proper receipt file that ApplZapper can use for its uninstallation…