I can’t resist a slightly snotty challenge, especially when it sets fire to a low-leve itch I’ve been carrying around for awhile. The Best Music Writing anthologies twitter feed pointed me towards a reading list designed for their new book club, and I was amazed and a bit appalled over the exceedingly limited range, which goes from disco to quite fine jazz that would still never startle or offend the parents of someone you are dating.
The writing, I’m sure, is high quality, certainly with Dyer and Hajdu. The thinking, however, is mediocre. Not that the writers of these books have mediocre minds — they wrote what they wanted to because it mattered to them — but that the editing of this list, and the editing of the anthology in general, is so. Leafing through the latest edition, my reaction is that there are some interesting pieces collected, but that everything is blandly polished and very safe. The range of music reflected in the editing is narrow and purposefully limited by a smug view of what’s worth listening to and writing about:
Best Music Writing is a beloved annual anthology begun in 2000 that celebrates the year in music writing by gathering writing from essays to Tweets on every sound and style of music from hip-hop to R&B to jazz to pop to blues. It is essential reading for anyone who loves great music and accomplished writing. Scribes of every imaginable sort—novelists, poets, journalists, musicians— are gathered to create a multi-voiced snapshot of the year in music writing that, like the music it illuminates, is loud, irreverent, loveable, odd, and always original.
There’s an inherent contradiction between staking out such tiny territory and then claiming to gather writing of “every imaginable sort,” as if the Anthology is the Vatican and its views are infallible. The 2011 edition has two pieces on jazz — nothing contemporary — and less than a handful on classical music, the only contemporary thing on a vapid and gimmicky use of twitter to
crowd-source an opera libretto distill opera plots to 140 characters. There’s an expected self-consciousness about being aware of what’s cool and hip in pop music, a guarantee that the results will be brittle and perishable.
I can’t square the contents with recordings and musical events that made their way through the physical and psychic landscape of New York City and music writing during the last year, including John Zorn at the opera house and a John Zorn opera (and opera along the Gowanus Canal), Mos Def with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Tindersticks collection of Claire Denis film scores, or the musical and cultural quality of music being made by and around Flying Lotus. 2011 also had some exceptionally daring, creative and successful jazz and a monumental archive of the work of Sun Ra that explains how at the roots of American popular music lie ideas that are simultaneously populist and at the extreme of the avant-garde. This is all within the range of the mainstream, because the mainstream is a river, not the reactive ditch of musical thinking and writing that gets accepted by editors. I shudder to think what might be included in the next edition that covers the John Cage centennial.
I read a lot of books about music, many of them on the musicological side. That satisfies my constant quest to understand how to make things work and solve musical problems. But I also read a lot of books because they have good writing about music, about its meaning and aesthetic/intellectual/social/historical importance. Perhaps it’s time to put together a list of books, like recordings, that are essential in how they further the pleasure of loving music. Purely out of impulse and personal memory, I would start with these:
- Sonata for Jukebox, Geoffrey O’Brien
- Straight Life, Art Pepper
- Improvisation, Derek Bailey
- How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Wald
- The Grey Album, Kevin Young
- The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, Michael Steinberg
I especially invite feedback and comments on this post. Organizing some kind of reading group is interesting to me, but the time involved is a bit daunting and so I would like to gauge the possible level of active participation, What say you all?
Updated for formatting and grammar, further updated for correction, courtesy of Alex Ross, on the nature of ‘operaplot.’.