Saturday, November 29, 2014


Ivan Hewett, Music: Healing the Rift (2003)
This article called it one of the four indispensable surveys of 20C music. Since I've not only read but own all the other three, I hastened. No, it doesn't belong in that company. It's a load of clotted rubbish, focusing on extreme modernism, but I propped my glazed-over eyes open for the last three chapters, a confused attack on "the return to tonality," which it claims is illegitimate both because it lacks an organic connection to the previous common practice (185) and because tonality was never a universal practice anyway (221). Suggestions that postmodern evocations of older music are stale copying [akin to what the Tolclones are to Tolkien, though Hewett doesn't make that comparison] might be interesting if followed up on. Criticizes this nostalgia (222), but defends nostalgia when it's nostalgia for high modernism (248). Complains both that postmodern music's extramusical associations are too specific (James MacMillan) and not specific enough (John Tavener). Classifies Harrison Birtwistle (211) and György Kurtág (218) as minimalists. Cites the popularity of minimalism as evidence that it's merely soothing, nothing more (188), then cites the lack of stardom of some composers as evidence that it's not so popular (211). Attacks an essay by Robin Holloway for saying what it emphatically didn't say (250-1).* Best line: the beautifully self-contradictory "As Germaine Greer keeps reminding us, obsessiveness is a peculiarly male trait" (189).

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)
This comment is what tempted me. Opens with two captivating detailed chapters on the political state of the initial antagonists, Serbia and Austria-Hungary. You'll never think of "plucky little Serbia" again after this. Begins with the bloody coup there in 1903. Why? Because the officers who plotted it were still running things behind the scenes in 1914, and organized the terrorist cell that shot the Archduke. So far the book is so good, but then it rapidly devolves into mindnumbingly endless detail on European diplomatic minutiae, distinguished mostly by irritation at Grey for being so damnably anti-German all the time. Most annoying repeated error: calling H.H. Asquith "Herbert Asquith", which is like calling J.R.R. Tolkien "John Tolkien". (Checked Barbara Tuchman, who at a glance doesn't use a forename on him at all.)

Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data (2012- )
Not a book, but a historian's blog on the Manhattan Project and the security aspects U.S. nuclear policy. Fabulous stuff. Covers just the aspects I'm most interested in reading about, and is piercingly intelligent in ways I've seen nobody else attempt. I particularly cherish his demolition of the revisionist theory of the reasons for dropping the bomb on Japan (he says it's a consensus view, but it's actually a demolition) and his pointing out that "we didn't cross a moral line at Hiroshima because we'd already long since crossed it." Connoisseurs of historical gossip might be particularly tickled by his speculation on who smeared Richard Feynman? And yes, he tells the Cleve Cartmill story!

*Holloway had written of the evolution of musical style, "History and hindsight tend to make factitious inevitability out of what must in fact have been completely fluid. The choices made, the paths taken, were not the only possibilities." Hewett asked, incredulously, "Is Holloway really suggesting that the coincidence of Beethoven's driving, sharply polarized tonality and that vast upheaval in consciousness brought on by the French Revolution is 'purely factitious'? Or that the sudden upsurge in exotic musical vocabulary in the late nineteenth century is utterly unconnected with the imperial adventures of the European powers?" No, you clown, even on the assumption that these are simple cause:effect relationships, he's not saying the effect wasn't generated by the cause. He's saying that the cause could have generated a different effect, that is, expressed itself musically in a different way.

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