alex ross’ listen to this (FSG, 2010) is giving me pure joy. pure joy and pure pleasure. i think i’m almost done (again, not reading it in order but hopping around and reading what catches my fancy), which makes me sad, and i really do mean sad because i’m enjoying it so much — but, then again, i can simply go to the new yorker and browse the archives, so there’s that.
in his preface he writes,
“So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music? The explanation may lie not in music but in ourselves. Since the mid-nineteenth century, audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion or spiritual politics, investing it with messages as urgent as they are vague. Beethoven’s symphonies promise political and personal freedom; Wagner’s operas inflame the imaginations of poets and demagogues; Stravinsky’s ballets release primal energies; the Beatles incite an uprising against ancient social mores. At any time in history there are a few composers and creative musicians who seem to hold the secrets of the age. Music cannot easily bear such burdens, and when we speak of its ineffability we are perhaps protecting it from our own inordinate demands. For even as we worship our musical idols we also force them to produce particular emotions on cue: a teenager blasts hip-hop to psych himself up; a middle-aged executive puts on a Bach CD to calm her nerves. Musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved. In my writing on music, I try to demystify the art to some extent, dispel the hocus-pocus, while respecting the boundless human complexity that gives it life." (xi-xii)
(i copy-pasted this from my ibook, hence the capitalization.)
i dare say ross succeeds in his intentions, and i appreciate the lack of condescension or pretension that sometimes creeps into discussion about classical music — or about music in general. ross doesn’t seek to elevate one form of music over another, which i find to be incredibly refreshing, especially as it allows music, in whatever form or whatever discipline, to shine and be seen in all its richness and complexity and adaptability. the last sentence of the essay, “the music mountain,” says, “the remarkable thing is the power of music to put down roots wherever it goes” (264), and one of the things that makes this collection so fun to read is that it demonstrates just that, how music travels and takes root and shifts and grows, rubbing against different cultures and new technologies and changing and taking new forms.
music is such a visceral thing, and i call it a “thing” because it is so many things. it’s an experience, an emotion, a discipline, a practice, a thought, an art, a way of life, and it’s a living, breathing thing that’s made new with every performance. musicians bring different experiences and interpretations to music, just as listeners bring different predispositions and energies to music, and, when all these things come together, it’s like magic, the way the head and the heart collide. in many ways, i suppose, to me, music will always be the highest form of art, but, then again, music is the thing that’s been with me longest and my memories are created and stored largely in sounds and songs.
in his art of fiction interview in the paris review, jonathan franzen said, “i’m more envious of music than of any other art form — the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. it’s like snorting the powder, it goes straight to your brain.” i agree, but i’m more inclined to take it a step further — music goes straight to the heart, and therein does its incredible power lie.
(speaking of franzen, september is — april/may/june/july/august — five-and-a-half months away? feels like for-e-ver.) (i finished reading the kraus project over the weekend, so now i’m fully out of franzen.) (this is weird. i think the only other author whose entire backlist i’ve read is nicole krauss. and jeffrey eugenides? but they each only have three books out … right?)
on saturday night, i was going through my shelves, looking for something read when my eyes landed on rebecca mead’s my life in middlemarch (crown, 2014). i picked this up when it was released last summer because (one) it has a beautiful cover and (two) i’m intrigued by the role of books in our lives and (three) i love mead’s journalistic pieces (her profile of lena dunham is the only thing, whether interview or otherwise, that has made me somewhat like dunham) (at least while i was reading it) (then it reset me to having no regard or interest for her again).
i never got much into it last summer, which shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of the book as i’m in the habit of starting books and pausing them and picking them up again later (books, like many other things, speak to us when we’re ready) (or we need to be ready to receive certain books) (sometimes, we pass those moments, like with me and salinger’s the catcher in the rye and, to a lesser degree, plath’s the bell jar). i picked it up again on saturday night, though, and loved this passage from the introduction:
“reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. but a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. there are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. there are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
this kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. it might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.” (16)
and, so, my week’s challenge, i suppose: to read george eliot’s middlemarch with mead’s my life in middlemarch as a “supplement” of sorts.
not that mead’s book is meant to be a supplement. i know myself, though, and my tendency to fizzle out, especially when books are long, and i also know my reading memory, so i’m going to try out my little reading experiment and see how it fares. i would try to come up with some kind of blogging accountability, like i’ll give myself three days per section and write a post, but this week is ishiguro week (HELL YES), and i have other things like work and writing to do, so, uh, i suppose y’all will have to check back next monday to see how it’s gone.
things i miss about california: driving. family, friends, and long conversations in cool los angeles evenings about art and craft and publishing dreams. korean food and tacos, tacos and korean food. philz and its mint mojito iced coffee. long drives at night when there’s no traffic and the music’s turned up and i'm alone with my thoughts (long drives are good for detangling story problems). the pacific ocean. the easy-going nature that comes hand-in-hand with all the goddamn sunshine. the way california, to me, is locked in time, a place i can slip into with ease temporarily, like an old skin i've shed but return to for comfort every now and then.
things i love about new york city: walking. friends and catching up in coffee shops, small loud restaurants, four and twenty. four and twenty. easy access to great coffee. redeemer. easy access to great independent bookstores and all the amazing book events held year-round. the brooklyn book festival. the new yorker festival. long rides on subways with earphones or not, a book or not, losing myself to the rhythm of the moving car and watching the people around me (long subways rides, also, are good for detangling story problems). brooklyn. the city and all its constant motion, the way it fits my heart and treats me with kindness and reminds me time and time again, hey, you’re home.