Book Notes: Miles Davis, Biography and Autobiography

As part of my recent Miles Davis binge, I bought two books about the musician. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Miles: The Autobiography (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Both of these books give great insight into Miles’ career, and his music.

4157FM2ZKTL._.jpgIan Carr’s biography is clearly that of a fan. He likes almost all of Miles Davis’ music, even the later albums, which, arguably, are greatly inferior to most of what Miles recorded. He also analyzes the music, somewhat. He discusses most of Miles’ recordings, describing the music. For example, regarding Bitches Brew, he says:

The ensemble pauses, then starts again, and Miles plays a few phrases and then stops.

Descriptions of music like this aren’t very useful, unless you have the music to listen to; and even then, I’m not sure what they add to understanding either a musician’s life or his music.

But Carr is exhaustive, and does seem to discuss every recording session, and every album. He paints a detailed picture of Miles’ life, presenting both the good and the bad without passing judgement. The book also contains a detailed biography, and a discography listing every session Miles recorded.

image001.jpgAs for the autobiography, this is Miles Davis creating his own story. Written with Quincy Troupe, the book was taken from interviews, and reads like Miles spoke. Which means there are lots of “fucks” and “motherfuckers.” Miles seems to tell things as they were, even many of the less respectable things he did in his life. However, Miles comes off as being fairly racist; he rails a lot about white people. If a white person wrote a book like this and said the same things about black people, it would be criticized. Granted, Miles had to put up with a lot of racism in his time, and he did work with white musicians, but it still comes off as angry.

Nevertheless, reading two sides of Miles Davis’ life is interesting. If you’re a fan, it’s worth checking these books out. The biography is more interested, but could have done with some editing to tighten it up. The autobiography, however, lets you hear Miles Davis in his own voice.

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Book Review: Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona ukOne of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen is Stalker, which I wrote about here, calling it the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film. Not many people have seen this movie, but Geoff Dyer not only has seen it many times, but has written an entire book about it. Entitled Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), this book is the most fascinating critical approach to a work of art that I’ve ever read.

On the surface, this book is simply a commentary to the film. Dyer says, at one point in the book, that he had “intended breaking this little book into 142 sections [...] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film,” but it works better with his beer-in-a-pub approach, discussing the film as it goes on without any formal structure. I had the feeling, reading this book, that Dyer was sitting next to me, riffing on this movie that obsesses him so, and which I, too, have loved since I first saw it 30 years ago.

Zona us Dyer is, at times, very serious, quoting people like Žižek and Wenders, but is also very funny, as he shares his feelings about the movie. Stalker is – to sum up very briefly – the story of one man (the Stalker) leading two others (Professor and Writer) to a Room, where one’s innermost wish may be granted. The Zone was created either after a meteorite struck somewhere in “our small country,” or after an alien visit (which was the case in the original novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).

Remember that number, 142? That’s the number of shots in the movie. At 156 minutes, that’s more than one minute per shot. Stalker is the movie of slowness, where the journey is far more important than the goal. And the journey through Dyer’s book is so entertaining, it’s nothing like one would expect from a tome discussing a classic art film.

Dyer brings this movie down to earth, if I can use that expression, sharing both his insights after seeing the movie many times, and his own personal experiences, such as doing LSD, wishing he could have a threesome, and traveling in many different countries (including one where he lost his knapsack).

This may sound self-indulgent, but with Dyer’s captivating voice, and his sardonic comments and footnotes, this book is hugely entertaining. You may not appreciate it if you haven’t seen Stalker, but, hey, this is a good chance to see one of the best science fiction films ever made. (And one that really doesn’t have much science fiction in it.)

Learn more about Stalker.

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Book Notes: Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett

Echos bonesIt’s a rare event when an unpublished work by Samuel Beckett is released. Echo’s Bones (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a short story, originally written for Beckett’s first collection, More Pricks than Kicks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) in 1933, when publisher Chatto & Windus felt the book was too short, at a mere 60,000 words. Echo’s Bones was meant to be the final story in the book, but on reading the manuscript, editor Charles Prentice wrote:

It is a nightmare. Just too terribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams. The same horrible and immediate switches of the focus, and the same wild unfathomable energy of the population. ‘Echo’s Bones’ would, I am sure, lose the book a great many readers. People will shudder and be puzzled and confused; and they won’t be keen on analysing the shudder.

At 13,500 words, this is a long short story, and it takes up about 50 pages in this edition. The remainder of the book consists of an introduction, situating the text in Beckett’s oeuvre, and extensive notes to the story, discussing all the many allusions and references it contains; these notes are longer than the story itself. There is also a selection of letters to and from Beckett about the story.

I can’t say what this story is about. It brings back Belacqua Shuah, a character from other stories in More Pricks than Kicks, along with many other characters, in a phantasmagoric exploration of the former’s afterlife. Belacqua died in the penultimate story of the collection, Yellow.

I also confess that I got bleary-eyed reading Echo’s Bones. It is confusing, and the wordplay is as obscure as Joyce, but not as creative. It shows Beckett being derivative, imitating Joyce in style, but not in content.

Yet it starts with a powerful first paragraph that suggests what Beckett would write after World War II:

The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them. Then they are free among the dead by all means, then their troubles are over, their natural troubles. But the debt of nature, that scandalous post-obit on one’s own estate, can no more be discharged by the mere fact of kicking the bucket than descent can be made into the same stream twice. This is a true saying.

Early Beckett – the period from the 1930s through World War II – is a tough slog. His earliest novels, Murphy and Watt, are interesting, and funny, yet they aren’t easy reads, and are very different from the post-war works of austerity and bleak humor. They almost read like Thomas Pynchon, without the technological references, and are just as dense.

Echo’s Bones is for Beckett completists. If you’re not familiar with Beckett’s work, move along. Start with Waiting for Godot, Molloy or Stories and Texts for Nothing. If you’re a confirmed Beckett fan, you’ll want Echo’s Bones, but be aware that it’s not up to the standards of his later works.

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Why We Get Fat

Why We Get Fat And What to Do About It book coverFood for thought:

That the official embrace of low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets coincided not with a national decline in weight but with epidemics of both obesity and diabetes (both of which increase heart disease risk), should make any reasonable person question the underlying assumptions of the advice. But that’s not how people tend to think when confronted with evidence that one of their long-held beliefs is wrong. It’s not how we typically deal with cognitive dissonance. It’s certainly not how institutions and governments do it.

From Why We Get Fat (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) by Gary Taubes. This book explains why eating fat doesn’t make us fat, but eating carbohydrates does. Why we don’t get fat because we eat, but we eat because we’re getting fat. Fascinating stuff.

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Richard Powers on Intelligent Life on Other Planets

From Richard Powers’ moving science fiction story Genie, available as a Kindle Single (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Let us assume that there is, indeed, sentient life in one or another part of remote space … What on earth are we going to talk about? Hello, are you there?, from us, followed by Yes, hello, from them—will take two hundred years at least … Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

See also my review of Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo.

Update: As Laurent mentions below, this is a comment from The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. Looking back at the story, I see it is cited as such. (I had highlighted it on my Kindle, and grabbed the quote from my Kindle page, without being able to see the context.) Great quote nevertheless.

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Apple Refuses Ebook with Tits on Cover; French Go Crazy

According to Le Monde, Apple has refused to sell a book with a picture of tits on its cover. The publisher – a small press, which hardly anyone had heard of before this event – is crying foul. Using phrases like “censorship” and “a violation of freedom of expression,” this publisher is calling on the French Minister of Culture, and even the European Commission, to act on their behalf and force Apple to accept their book’s cover.

Now, I’ve written about Apple’s hypocrisy in this area before, but this is not about censorship, and it is no threat to the “freedom of creation,” as the French publisher claims. No one can force any store to sell a specific item; any retailer has the right to choose what they sell. You may not agree with their rules, but it in no way threatens your “freedom of expression.”

Apple does have stringent rules for their stores: these say that you can’t have nudity on covers of items, but they go much further, as developers I know have found out. There are many words you can’t use in descriptions, and the rules about how apps work are even more byzantine.

No, French publisher, you’re not being censored. Apple’s “prudishness” may bother you, but it’s their store, and you play by their rules. Apple sells their content in many countries that are far more prudish than the United States, so it’s probably that their rules are stricter for that reason. Get a grip.

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Book Review: Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

wheretheheartbeats-2.jpgJohn Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.

The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.

Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.

Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.

I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

His first major work using the I Ching was Music of Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a four-part work for piano where Cage used chance operations to determine the score.

They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.

Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.

It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.

I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a charlatan. In writing, for example, 4’33″, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was just a joke. Cage defends it, likening it to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, but those – just like Richard Stella’s later black paintings – say nothing. Cage made an interesting statement with 4’33″, but it was an empty statement. To me, his work stagnated once he settled into his aleatoric process.

1333127842-ln1uth25edxiht5n-1.jpegI met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.

Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.

HexagrammesHe explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:

This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)

But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later in a gallery in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.


Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.



You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.

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Book Review: Orfeo, by Richard Powers; Classical Music and Terror

Orfeo_0.jpgEver since I first discovered Richard Powers’ novel Gold Bug Variations (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), I have been following this author’s work closely. I await each new novel with impatience, as he has one of the most fascinating voices in modern fiction.

Powers often writes novels where science is an important character (and some which is properly science fiction). There are scientists, neurological illnesses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. But Powers is also clearly a music fan, as Gold Bug Variations shows (partly based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, partly on Poe’s The Gold Bug). This love for music can be seen in his latest novel, Orfeo. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iBooks)

Powers is a master stylist; he is a master of the sentence. Reading a novel by Richard Powers can be like strolling through a museum. Each sentence, each paragraph stands out like a painting, giving a specific view of the world. As I was reading Orfeo, there were hundreds of sentences that I could have underlined, because they were so breathtakingly beautiful. (Well, I don’t underline in books; I can’t deface them. I stick little post-its to mark my favorite passages.) Powers said, in an interview with the Paris Review:

A lot of people who have written about me have written about the architecture and the large-scale design of my work, which is important to me. But it’s really the individual sentence that I work at again and again until it becomes the thing it’s trying to describe. To me, that sense of complete commensurability between form and content at the level of the individual sentence is really what writing is all about. I love to see how much load a sentence can bear. I don’t want it to be a performance. I don’t want it to call attention to itself as a virtuosic set piece. But I do want somehow to do this double-voicing where a sentence can reflect the virtuosity of the human mind. Reflect the multiplicity and richness of a sensibility as it tries to synthesize all these inimical things in the experiential world. What I really like to learn how to do is to build sentences that are equal to mental states.

Orfeo tells the story of an avant-garde composer, Peter Els, who, in his early life, had considered becoming a chemist. Now in his 1970s, Els starts dabbling with biochemistry: home DNA experiments on bacteria. When some federal agents find out, he becomes branded a bio-terrorist, and flees, setting out a journey to exonerate himself while becoming an internet sensation. He even tweets from @TerrorChord; a real Twitter account exists which contains all the tweets that were made in the book. (The author has confirmed to me by email that he is not behind that account.)

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The novel alternates between the story of Els in the present, on the run, and the story of his life as a composer. Beginning in the earliest days, when he makes music that only a select few want to listen to, Els tries to find his voice, to find music that will change the world. But, when he is a fugitive, he realizes that he had once:

… believed that music could save a person’s life. He could think of nothing now but all the ways it might get a person killed.

Throughout this trajectory, Powers riffs on music and terror. He focuses closely on a number of works, which feature as plot points for Els’ life:

  • Mozart, Jupiter symphony
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder
  • Messiaen, Quatuour pour la fin du temps
  • Cage, Musicircus
  • Reich, Proverb
  • Shostakovich, 5th symphony
  • Lieberman, “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres,” from Neruda Songs

Powers’ comments about music are perceptive, and his comments about the way people listen to music even more so. Watching a young woman jog, Els thinks:

A tinny munchkin backbeat trailed from her earbuds in her wake. Els couldn’t make out the flavor of her bliss. This part, these advance spring flowers, the sixty-degree air stolen from paradise, were colored for her by invisible instruments that no one but she could hear.

But much of this novel is also about the irrational reaction to “terror” that has gripped the United States. Els was merely playing apprentice sorcerer with banal bacteria, the kind that we wear on our skin. (The reader learns why at the end of the novel.) But, as Els says:

The nation has been panicked for ten years. And if spreading panic is the measure, every news anchor is a terrorist.

As Els thinks to himself:

You’ve just turned some stupid misunderstanding into a federal offense by acting like a criminal.

The novel must reach a conclusion, and it does, in an unexpected way. But not without raising poignant questions about music itself. Much of this novel asks the question, “Why music?” What does music do for us; why do we react in the ways we do. Els applauds the vast catalog of music that people can call up at will on portable devices, and he later asks the question, “How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul.”

There is no answer to this question, but if you care about music, you’ll want to read Orfeo. Even if you don’t like classical music, you’ll find a taut thriller, interspersed with reflections on art. Either way, this is a page-turner that explores the place of art in our lives.

As Powers says, “Life is an escaped experiment, say the artists, and the only real safety is death.”

Once more with feeling…

P.S.: If you’re a science fiction reader, Richard Powers’ Genie, a Kindle Single (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), is one of the most moving first contact stories I’ve read. It is also somewhat related to the theme of Orfeo…

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