For some reason a lot of music books have percolated to the top of my bedstand pile recently. I just finished Alex Ross’ magisterial and definitive The Rest is Noise, a history of 20th Century “Western Classical” music. (Let’s pause for a moment and praise the genius of that title, by the way.) The book starts with Strauss, Mahler and Debussy and ends with John Adams and some of my recent obsessions: Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Olivier Messiaen, whose Quartet for the End of the Time is at the Proms next week. (For me, really a neophyte with this kind of music, the book was an ideal companion to Paul Morley’s Words and Music, which turned me onto this music by reimagining the history of rock’n’roll as if driven not by the blues but by the resolutely white-boy classical tradition: it starts and ends with Alvin Lucier’s minimalist “I am Sitting in a Room” and Kylie’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”.)
But the centerpiece of Ross’s book is three chapters on the way politics drove the musical agenda (or at least tried to) in mid-century Germany, America and the Soviet Union. The unspoken but eventually obvious point comes through, that the music can’t help be of its place and time, a product of the world around it, but that our duty is just to listen, not forgetting the history, but not paying it too much attention, either.
I’ve also been reading Love is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield’s music-tinged memoir, concentrating on the loss of his first wife, Renée, far too young. I’m lucky enough to have known Rob for more than 20 years, and that made the book both hard to put down and, when the going got tough, recalling for me the day when Rob phoned to tell me the terrible news about Renée, hard to pick up. But it’s a lovely, moving, book, managing to set down the emotional pull of music’s private meaning and the way it connects to the people listening with us, even on an iPod hundreds or thousands of miles away. (You can hear Rob reading some excerpts at the book’s site.; there’s a wonderful NPR interview with Rob, too.)