I’ll acknowledge that reading about music seems counterintuitive. But it’s one thing to just listen to a piece or song, and another thing entirely to do so while understanding what a particular melody might represent, or what inspired a composer, or what impact a certain work may have had on musical history.
The esteemed pianist Alfred Brendel gives readers a peek inside his mind with Music, Sense, and Nonsense, a collection of his essays and lectures that unpack “sound, silence, sublimity, humor, and the performer’s critical role in the experience of music.” In an excerpt from The Indispensable Composers, Anthony Tommasini reconsiders the legacy of Giacomo Puccini, the prolific composer of operatic works like La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca.
A biography of Claude Debussy—famed for his impressionistic, atmospheric style of composing that can be heard in pieces like “La Mer” and “Clair de Lune”—considers the “worldly trials” the French composer faced during his lifetime. And here’s another famous name to add to the list: Charlie Chaplin, the auteur of the silent-film era of the 1910s and ’20s, who was also a musician and composer. But Chaplin couldn’t actually read any notes, meaning that his musical achievements—including an Oscar for Best Original Music Score—were the result of often unrecognized collaborations, as Jim Lochner analyzes in The Music of Charlie Chaplin.
Fast forward to this decade, and electronic music—the genre de rigueur—is contextualized as “a radical project” in the British journalist David Stubbs’s Future Sounds. But looking at the recent pop charts, Stubbs wonders, is electronic music living up to its potential?
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
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The writer who makes perfect sense of classical music
“It’s easy to take for granted that a performance should speak directly to a listener’s passions, vulnerabilities, and sense of self. What many listeners might not fully consider is that the experience is almost totally in the hands of the performer, someone tasked with somehow summoning the ethereal without losing the audience in the process.”
Making a case for opera’s most successful, yet condescended toward, composer
“Puccini is not only indispensable, but one of the most dramatically astute and musically expert composers to write for the stage.”
The worldly trials of a fantasist composer
“By his own admission, [Debussy] suffered from ‘a sickness of delay … and this curious need never to finish.’ It was as though the emotional expression he sought resisted closure, with the ironic effect that daily life closed in.”
The caveat to Charlie Chaplin’s musical achievements
“Movies are an inherently collaborative process. Yet the influences of collaborators can often be discounted, contributing to a less-than-complete picture of how a filmmaker such as Chaplin created his films, and thereby supporting a mythologized ideal of auteurs and their processes.”
The largely forgotten, radical power of electronic music
“Though machines are often blamed for Chainsmokers-style blandness, ‘The problem is not the technology itself … It’s the conservatism and timidity and pragmatism of those using it.’”
In our last briefing, we dove into The Atlantic’s archives and asked you to suggest books that you’ve changed your mind on after a second (or third or fourth) reading. William Kostura, from California, wrote that the first time he read The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin, he found it “terse and bleak.” But on a second pass, years later, William reconsidered: “It IS terse and bleak, but it points the way to developing a perspective that will allow us to find acceptance, peace, and an ability to work for a better society no matter how bad things seem to be. I find the spare prose irresistible now; there is nary a wasted word.” For Iris Berkel, from Waxhaw, N.C., Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is no longer the “hilarious” and “unbelievable” work she once thought it was. Now, Iris wrote, “I find the antics of the characters to be abysmally colonial and unaware of the culture and people that they blindly went to convert.”