Acousticians sometimes speak of a sympathetic resonance that can occur between vibrating objects — and good writing on music can achieve a kindred effect, as the well-tempered paragraph vibrates at a frequency aligned with the music it describes. And so, in the face of another season without much (if any) live performance, we’ve picked out a sampling of notable books on music, newly arrived or coming soon. Maybe this is the year to try out the viewpoint held by plenty of composers over time: that the very best performances are the ones that play out on the stage of the mind. Happy reading.
Alex Ross, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In this sweepingly original new book, music critic Alex Ross traces the impact of Wagner’s art and ideas not on musicians but on Western culture more broadly, from the composer’s day down to our own. In the process, he ushers readers along an endlessly fascinating tour of the lives and works touched by, in his words, “the chaotic posthumous cult” spawned by a composer with a gift for making impassioned friends and equally impassioned enemies (sometimes in the same person, see: Nietzsche, Friedrich). The book’s journey leads through disparate worlds of politics, painting, poetry, novels, theater, film, philosophy, architecture, and more. By the end, one senses with accumulated clarity the degree to which the spell cast by this music has held the modern world itself in its sway.
That modern world of course included the Third Reich, and the Wagner-Hitler nexus has made no figure in the history of art more controversial. Ross gives that immensely fraught relationship its due, but he also spotlights the composer’s less commonly recognized admirers, including figures such as Theodor Herzl and W.E.B. Du Bois among others in a motley crew of dreamers and anarchists, poets and politicians, modernist writers and feminist pioneers. Ross shows that Wagner’s operas have served as equal opportunity agents of enchantment across a broad political and aesthetic spectrum. The music that inspired Hitler was also played on the occasion of Lenin’s funeral. “When we look at Wagner,” Ross writes, “we are gazing into a magnifying mirror of the soul of the human species.”
Nazism cannot be laid entirely at Wagner’s feet, he argues, but neither can we ignore the music’s protean darkness, the disconcerting ease with which it has been allied to ideologies of oppression and hate. In page after lucid page, Ross narrates this epic tour while hovering above the fray with a kind of lyrical skepticism that eventually starts to feel like its own quietly principled way of knowing the past: an ethic of reading history against its accumulated layers, granting irony its own power of illumination, and holding open a space for complex, contradictory truths. Ultimately “Wagnerism,” the fruit of nearly a decade of exhaustive research, is a masterwork of historical synthesis and historical sleuthing. Its boldest achievement is to take a core sample of modern culture and reveal within it the pervasive influence of a single composer, his music’s capacities to wound and to heal, and its enduring contemporary presence as, in the author’s words, “a warning from the damaged past.”
Maria Sherman, “Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS” (Black Dog & Leventhal)
Ignore the subtitle. Music critic and self-avowed boy band superfan Maria Sherman doesn’t dare neglect New Edition (and others who came before) in this smart, pithy tome, a candy-bright tour of the world of boy bands. In 200 illustrated pages of snappy prose, Sherman covers a history of the oft-dismissed genre, interpolating loving send-ups of stars’ wackiest outfits (Justin Timberlake’s all-denim getup at the 2001 American Music Awards!) with blurbs on one-hit wonders and glossaries of boy band lingo from the English- and Korean-speaking fanverses.
Sherman’s love for dancing, harmonizing moptops doesn’t lead her to skate over the flaws in a system that turns high schoolers into idols. Many pages are dedicated to the surreal story of blimp mogul turned boy band impresario (and fraudster) Lou Pearlman, and she pinpoints the conservative cultural trends that rocketed the chastity-pledging Jonas Brothers to stardom. But at no point does she bear anything but profound respect for the teens who discover themselves and find community in the fandoms — as it should be.
John Luther Adams, “Silences So Deep: Solitude, Music, and Alaska” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The ruggedly soulful music of composer John Luther Adams has been intimately associated with the wide-open landscapes of Alaska, where he made his home for four decades. How this Mississippi-born composer navigated his own Thoreauvian journey toward solitude and wilderness, and how he became the poet of the sounds he hears in their conjoining, are the subjects of this compelling new memoir. Due out later this month, it will appear alongside a host of new recordings of Adams’s music.
The composer’s writing style is free of artifice and disarmingly candid. “Music is my way of understanding the world, of knowing where I am and how I fit in,” he writes. For Adams, wild places are not merely a muse but a prompt to see and hear the radical otherness of nature, its raw majesty and mystery but also its fearsome precariousness in an era of rolling environmental crisis. His music is the deeply personal space in which he stages this encounter. Mapping its sources, and its goal of awakening new ecological consciousness while avoiding the pitfalls of political art, is the task Adams takes on here. He pursues it with a mixture of sensitivity and frankness, yet also with an abiding sense of wonder for the landscapes — and the friendships — that were the crucible of it all.
Philip Kennicott, “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning” (W.W. Norton & Company)
The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic set out to learn Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations after the death of his mother, a once-promising musician unhappily pressed onto the housewife’s path. “Counterpoint” delivers a set of variations in the key of life, with Bach — the Goldbergs in particular — as the song that seeds further growth. With stunning candor and elegance, Kennicott explores the complexities of grieving for an emotionally abusive person with brief dissertations on longing, on learning, on perfectionism; the lasting memories that color our lives; a beloved dog that indelibly despises Bach.
Just like one of the Baroque master’s dense but translucent fugues, it’s often hard to tell where one strand of thought ends and another begins — but this never diminishes the experience of reading. On the contrary, Kennicott’s approach turns what may have been a simple memoir into a shining, nonlinear meditation.
Sasha Geffen, “Glitter Up the Dark” (University of Texas Press)
Music has always opened doors to a world without confines, where performers (and listeners, vicariously) may express prohibited desires. As Geffen points out in the introduction, “is he musical?” was archaic code to ask if a man was gay. There’s nothing new to the idea that performing arts were (and remain) a haven for sexual misfits and gender rebels. Geffen, however, takes this a few steps further; through their critical lens, the author argues that pop music does not so much break the gender binary as make the argument that it never existed in the first place.
“Glitter Up the Dark” is less a straightforward narrative of pop music gender play and nonconformity than a spiraling, exhilarating dance through its more and less famous manifestations. Geffen pays particular attention to the vital roles of recording and synthesizer technology in masking performers’ physical realities and creating sounds beyond their confines. Morrissey shifts his voice up while Laurie Anderson shifts hers down, transgender Moog pioneer Wendy Carlos denies access to her keyboard fortress to all but the blind Stevie Wonder, and children of the digital age like Sophie and Janelle Monaé let futurist dreams transcend preset molds. This prism of a book reflects a rainbow on all it touches.