Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Writing, good

One week left until the special field exam, so expect intermittent posting. However, I thought I'd share some of my favorites from the period. In the past week, I've pushed my way through 23 books, skimming except for the parts that seemed especially pertinent for my work. Each of these books wins points not only for being clear and informative, but also beautifully written, sometimes to the detriment of my time management plann of skimming.

Ingrid Monson's Freedom Sounds. A fascinating journey into jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. Always insightful angles, loaded with pertinent and colorful detail, and clearly loving every minute of music.

Tricia Rose's Black Noise. It's sort of the work on hip hop, and you couldn't ask for a more culturally rich, musically aware introduction.

Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow. Fascinating glimpse of the 19th century's shift in cultural values. Several people have quibbloed about details and whether he overstates his case, but if so he overstates it so irresistably. These sorts of stories I just find so appealing, almost like a good historical novel (and I mean that in a good way, not dismissive).

Joseph Horowitz's Classical Music in America. Like the Levine, detailed history of broad cultural change made fresh and alive.

Peter Burkholder's All Made of Tunes. I'm seriously in awe of that much work. And his edited collection of essays Charles Ives and his World is an excellent companion piece.

Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club. A look at the ways in which music crosses from art to pop or the other way. Compelling stuff, especially with the masterful way all these narratives end up intertwining and echoing.

Finally, two stand out. The first is Michael Broyles's Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music. I'm not sure what impresses me most, but it's probably the fact that he's able to get so much in the book, to make his examples concise and yet perfectly clear in their function. But he's also mastered the art of the subtly directed narrative the book. It never fails to be relevant and interesting or lacking in direction. And beautifully written. Well worth a look if you have interest in this music.

Jason Tanz's Other People's Property is the last book I read, an examination of hip hop's role in white America, and it raised an interesting tangential question I want to end with. I didn't take a lot of notes from the book, since it isn't as clearly in line with my studying task at hand, but I read it front to back nonstop. It was that kind of book, the kind you don't expect to be on a shelf with the other Library of Congress nonfiction books. It's not as theoretical or musical in its focus, which may account for my lack of notes on it. But also to that end, as I was reading I found it all too easy to slip from thinking of it as a scholarly work to simple a masterful story.

And here I'm torn on two accounts. Is the writing style working against it? Are we more likely to trust an author who cites more theory, has more footnotes? The second gets down to a simple question of musicological versus ethnomusicological priorities. Historical musicologists like sources, footnotes, in short, evidence. If it comes from an archive, somehow it's more reliable that one person's experience. And I have problems with that, although I found myself (involuntarily) less willing to think of this ethnography as that kind of evidence. Aaron Fox's Real Country was also riveting and a well-told story, but also more theoretical, and somehow I didn't have this issue reading that (quite the opposite, as it ranks among the best scholarly books I've ever read). So why should this book's even broader accessibility render it (in my mind at least) somehow less trustworthy as a scholar? Certainly the details he gives are exact and applicable, the conclusions he draws well supported, and so forth. The upside, I suppose, is that all this school still hasn't killed off my love of reading a well-written book. I just wish it didn't make me so damn skeptical.


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