Seems that for the past few months most of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi (which I wrote up here) or about music. Herewith notes on four of the latter. The subjects are Philip Glass, John Cale, Cuba, and getting loaded.

Glass · Words Without Music is Philip Glass’s autobiography. I should start by saying that I’m a big fan, bought lots of albums back in the day. For anyone unfamiliar with the flavor, I recommend the following: Open up your favorite streaming service and say “Play Mishima by Philip Glass”. You’ll know pretty quick whether you like it. If you do, you won’t be alone; I don’t have hard data but I think Phil is probably the best-selling practitioner of “New Music”, i.e. contemporary stuff that isn’t Pop music.

I caught a live concert too, Phil and the Philip Glass Ensemble, in which he plays but doesn’t lead; (Early editions of the Ensemble included Steve Reich on keys.) They performed the Koyaanisqatsi sound-track while the movie played. What a sound!

Any Glass fan is going to want to read this, I think. But it’s not problem-free. First: He talks tons about his process and his high-level thinking about putting his music together, but zero about its music-theory basis. By the way, one reason he’s so prolific is that he doesn’t have to write a Master Score as he composes: He just holds the music in his head and writes out the individual parts, one by one. I saw a documentary once which showed him writing musical lines at a comfortable handwriting speed, saying with an amused expression “This part, you see, this part goes pretty fast.”

Second, it’s a depressing reminder of how deeply the Reagan-Thatcher dogma has savaged the fabric of our society. Glass was a bright kid in a middle-class family who went from an elite public school to an elite college with Nobel-Laureate teachers, then to an elite music school, then to Paris to study at the feet of Nadia Boulanger. The Paris section, by the way, is an astonishing read; Whatever you think of his music, the man studied his craft with heroic intensity. Then he settled in New York and by, moving furniture and driving taxi, earned enough to rent a loft and compose furiously, turning the world of “New Music” inside out. Try to pull that off today. Everything’s been financialized and efficiency-maximized and there’s little space left for variant shoots of any art form to thrive then twist them sideways.

Oh, another irritant: Most of the book is written in an extremely transparent flat-aspect style, which gets out of the way and I respect, and I was thinking “good solid prose, it’s a pity Phil doesn’t try to reach back and bring it a little bit, like he does in his music.” And then in the very last chapter, he does. Here’s a paragraph, relating his reaction when asked about what it felt like when composing one of his big pieces:

I don’t know … Because I’m not sure that I am there at that moment. The ordinary witness has been lost  — the artist Philip has robbed the daily Philip of his ability to see himself. That’s very clearly what happens when people say “I wrote it in a dream,” or “I don’t know where the music came from. … All they’re really saying is “I don’t remember how I did it,” and they make up an outside source. But the real source is not any of those things. It’s a process that the artist has learned. He has tricked himself into gaining that extra attention that he needed to do the work.

I kinda wished that Phil had let loose some of that writing energy on more parts of the book. Whatever, it’s a valuable piece of the historical record.

Cale · John Cale, a Welshman, is a founding member of the Velvet Underground and one of life’s Really Interesting People. Disclosure: His album Sabotage/Live is central to the way I think of music: Live is better. Loud is better. Terrifying is best. I stage-managed one of the concerts on the tour that album showcases; that show went severely off the rails in a way that gives me a distant echo of PTSD all these decades later. I may write about it some year.

Anyhow, I’m here to write about What’s Welsh For Zen, a sort of autobiography, in large format with plenty of photography and art splashed across all the pages. I wanted to read it and discovered that it’s only available used and for hundreds of dollars. So I took it out of the public library for free; isn’t it great to be a member of a civilization?

Anyhow, Cale was a member of the same white-hot New York art scene that Phil Glass was, only with Lou Reed and Andy Warhol and lots of drugs. Boy, does John ever hate Lou. But he invests a lot of words in explaining what kind of a person Lou is and what it’s like to work with him. Or try to. Whatever, they produced some pretty fucking wonderful music together. Nobody ever said making art had to be fun.

Cale’s portrayal of Warhol is way kinder. What I notice, looking back all these decades, is that everyone I’ve read writing about Warhol seems to be describing a different person. Warhol managed the Underground for a while and it’s pretty clear that some of the ideas he brought to their oeuvre, in particular performance practices, have become integral to popular music at large.

Anyhow, Cale plays a significant but not leading role in the story of how Rock music became what it is today. I’m glad that he put all this stuff on the record.

Getting loaded · In Vancouver’s library system you go online, you find the book you want, you put it on hold, and after a while you get an email telling you it’s arrived at your local branch. Whenever I bike over there I go look at the featured-books shelves and occasionally pick one up.

When I was picking up the Phil Glass book I noticed Too Late To Stop Now: More Rock’n’Roll War Stories by Allan Jones, who spent decades in the pop-music journalism profession, back when you could make a decent living in journalism of many flavors. This is, um, extremely lightweight, mostly tales of the author ingesting massive quantities of alcohol and cocaine and weed while hanging out with Rock Stars you might have heard of. Parts of it work well for an oldster like me because we remember the rage and excitement in the air when the New Wave swept away Prog Rock. Boy, does Mr Jones hate anything even remotely prog-related and, to be fair, those geezers kinda brought it on themselves. Anyhow, what saves it is that he’s consistently funny.

There’s a connection: One of the segments covers an extended conversation with John Cale, which re-iterates the awfulness of working with Lou Reed, but in this matter Cale comes off better through a third-party pen than his own. Anyhow, if you were listening to music in the late Seventies this has a good chance of going deep on some artist you really cared about. And it might open your ears to something new; in my case, to the work of Roy Harper, whom I’d heard of but not actually heard, and now I have and am glad of it.

Cuba · What happened was, I was watching a YouTube of a live concert by Rhiannon Giddens, which I recommend doing because she is by the way totally a goddess. She tends to chat at the audience a bit between songs, and in connection with something I totally forget, she recommended Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, by Ned Sublette. I thought it sounded interesting. During the depths of Covid’s first wave, I took a few months of private Afro-Cuban music lessons via Zoom; bought a nice pair of Congas, even. I recommend this for anyone who’s even a bit musically literate and interested in rhythm. Just learning about the Clave rhythm and Bell pattern, and a bit of son and rumba lore, changed the way I think about rhythms. If you’re ever doing rhythm in a jam, throwing in a bit of clave feel will make everything magically funkier.

So, I recommend this book, but… wow, it’s huge. It’s “only” 688 pages, the listing says (I read it in the Kindle app on my tablet) but it feels twice as long; took me weeks to finish. It is monumentally thorough; by the time you’re finished, you will be damn erudite on the history and culture of Cuba from the Pre-Columbian era through to the Fifties. It’s advertised as being “Part 1” but was published in 2004, so I’m not sure about Part 2.

The Spanish organized-crime mob — I’m talking about Columbus and his successors — pretty well wiped out Cuba’s Indigenous population (although I learned in writing this that there are people who to this day claim to be Taíno and preserve that culture). Thus, there remain four input streams that intertwined to create Cuba’s remarkably-rich mix of language and religion and especially music:

  • Spanish, which, given the dates, included strains of…

  • Moorish, being the still-strong influence of Al-Andalus.

Then there were the enslaved Africans; they were not just one people, but from a variety of nations, and brought along with them two main currents of language and musical culture:

  • The first, from West Africa’s southern coast — think of the range from Côte d'Ivoire to Benin, which was itself complex, including flavors from the coastline and then up into the Sahel, where once again there was a Muslim/Arabic influence, and last but definitely not least,

  • The Congo, a general term here for southern Africa‘s eastern shore: Equatorial Guinea down to Angola.

In Cuba, the Church was less efficient in its proselytizing than elsewhere in the New World, and thus the African religions, and even bits and pieces of the languages, survive and have a hefty influence on some of Cuba’s musics. Yes, that’s musics, plural; it’s not just one thing at all.

Anyhow, to get the beginnings of a feel for the feel, type “Arsenio Rodriguez” or “Tito Puente” into your favorite music source and see what happens.

Am I ever happy to have read this book, and if I don’t stop now, this blog piece will start to inherit its punishing length and complexity. I’ve probably said enough for you to make a good guess whether it’s for you.

Meta-music · I already have a couple of shelves of books on music, a high proportion being biographical, and reading these outings reminded me of why. Books on music is a habit I recommend.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Yakoumis (Dec 12 2023, at 21:52)

just a small correction: Angola & Equatorial Guinea are on the west/south west coast


From: Michael Schürig (Dec 13 2023, at 06:42)

My limited experience with books about music is that, apart from books on music theory, they tend to be about people who make music.

Admittedly, there's a good chance that people who make interesting music are also interesting people.


From: Paul Morriss (Dec 14 2023, at 01:04)

Can I recommend "The Ambient Century" by Mark Predendergast. (You probably have it already.) It's very wide in its scope of, well, 20th Centry ambient music, as you'd expect.


From: Kyle Burford (Dec 18 2023, at 11:09)

I too think Sabotage/Live is one JC's best. I saw one show on that tour when I was in high school and it was crazy. I would love to hear your 'behind the scenes' memories of that tour. And thanks for the list.


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