Lady Stardust

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Earth was dying. We had five years left to live. Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien rock star, was sent from another planet to grey, binary 1970s Britain to give us a message of hope. I’m not sure about the hope part of the message, but he really turned us on. Apparently, Ziggy was a fictional character. We knew that, but we didn’t want to know it. It’s not like we were in the mood for critical thinking as we set about freeing our secret freakish selves. Bowie understood the power and point of enigma, right to the end of his life. Narrative needs to be porous so that we can fill it with our own yearnings, desires, imaginations. It’s still hard to accept that Ziggy didn’t fall from the stars in full makeup to blow our minds. Yes, other people helped create him. One of them was Suzi Ronson

In Their Own Sweet Way

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

On a February afternoon in 1958, at the end of a session lasting four and a half hours in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church on East 30th Street in New York City, a sextet led by the trumpeter Miles Davis recorded two takes of a newly composed tune called ‘Milestones’. Here

Year the Music Died

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Pulp’s album This is Hardcore, released in 1998, unfolds as an onrush of thoughts, words, feelings and scenarios, many of them unsettling, if not actually unpleasant. Dense and long – thirteen songs running to almost an hour and ten minutes – it is a profound reaction to individual crises and more general cultural shifts. It […]

All Three Coplands

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Aaron Copland, who was as quintessentially American as Elgar or Vaughan Williams were British, is often considered the musical voice of the United States. In a long life he wrote sixty works, and his oeuvre extend to variations on previously composed works and orchestral suites drawn from ballets, operas and film music. He was versatile […]

The Truth it is a-Changin’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Dylanology has always been a dirty business, right back to when Dylan creepophile A J Weberman was literally going through the singer’s trash for clues and meanings. But Clinton Heylin brings the beef like no other. His run of books about Bob Dylan – there are another eight – is characterised by mean-spirited put-downs of fellow Dylanologists

Singing Constellations

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When I was ten or eleven years old, my father began to take me to concerts of Hindustani classical music. His own family was happily unmusical; he had been introduced to Hindustani music as an undergraduate and it has been his greatest source of joy and refuge ever since. He would sit in the front […]

Fiddler on the Run

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Cremona is one of northern Italy’s less interesting cities. It has a dull aircraft hangar of a Romanesque cathedral and its enormous civic art gallery is noteworthy only for the sheer volume of undistinguished crusts stacked on the endless walls. The place, however, had its moment, ‘one far fierce hour and sweet’, when, during the […]

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Symphony of a Thousand Millennia

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The first note known to have sounded on earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber. Consider, too, the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural. The normal pitch of the female’s wings is 400Hz, or G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female harmonise at 1200Hz, which is, as Michael Spitzer notes in his extraordinary new book, The Musical Human, ‘an ecstatic octave above the male’s D’. ‘Everything we sing’, Spitzer adds, ‘is just a footnote to that.’ Humans may be the supremely musical animal, but, with or without us, this is a musical planet. What makes us special? The answer is complex. It is partly down to physiological factors, such as

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Romantic Fables

Posted on by David Gelber

Berlioz made a forceful impression on his contemporaries. In 1831 Mendelssohn wrote to his father: Berlioz is a freak [verzzert, distorted, out of shape], without a spark of talent, fumbling about in the darkness and imagining himself to be the creator of a new world; he writes about the most terrible things, and dreams and […]

The Divided Elf

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

David Bowie is supposed to have said that he does not remember much about the Seventies, for which it is well known that cocaine takes the credit. But the business of Bowie biography does not significantly suffer, because Bowie refuses to talk to his biographers anyway. Judging from Alias David Bowie, by Peter and Leni […]

The Real Whores of War

Posted on by David Gelber

War novel nasties can usually be spotted by their titles: The Whores of War, Wheels of Terror, Slaughterground, Cauldron of Blood, Mountain of Skulls, Reign of Hell, Blood on the Baltic. The dust jackets promise demon heroes, corpse-strewn landscapes, sadism and blood. Inside, brutal men, ‘living outside the normal boundaries of reason and fear’, burn, […]

Pop Will Eat Itself

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The postwar British cult of revivalist jazz was a curiously paradoxical affair. The initial intention was to resist the rise of bebop and other deviations from the true path by reasserting the roots of the music – ‘to unearth the principles which distinguished the early jazz forms, which had become almost obscured beneath an accumulation […]

On the Green Hill

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

My Life with Wagner is a sensitive and revealing book, worth reading as a document of how Western art reflects on itself, its achievements and its anxieties. Some readers might experience many of these anxieties as they hear about the conductor Christian Thielemann’s life and politics. This is the story of a conservative who loves […]

Melody Makers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

FIVE YEARS AGO I started learning the piano. I’ve dreamed about tickling the ivories for almost as long as I can remember, but the fantasy began to take on corporeal aspect whde I was readlng Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head (Pimlico). A song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ career, Revolution was the first book on […]

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Music And Madness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

THE COVER IS magnetic – a black-and-white photograph of George Gershwin’s crossed hands playing a C major 7th chord. If you can understand the allure of that. you  are the right reader for this book. Every aspect of it, from the cover inwards, has been tailored to the voracious appetite of the piano fetishist – […]

Being Bob

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Bob Dylan has been ducking, weaving and obfuscating for so long – been the repository of so many people’s fantasies and theories – that it’s well nigh impossible now to tell where the truth about his life and art ends and the myth-making begins. Can any artistic figure of the twentieth century have been more avidly scrutinised, while […]

A Swift, Vivid Genius

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When Florence Mills died in 1927, there was a public outpouring of grief that few performers have inspired. Over 50,000 people f3ed past her coffin at the Seventh Avenue ‘funeral church’, before a service at the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on 136th Street in New York. The pavements of Harlem were packed with […]

Nietszche Fetched His Silk Panties

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Two months after Richard Wagner died of heart failure in a rented palazzo in Venice in 1883, a touring production of his Ring cycle came to the city. A fleet of gondolas, led by the Venetian State Gondola (which carried the company’s entire orchestra), made its way to the palazzo. To the rapture of a large […]

Sax Life: Five Books About Jazz

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The subtitle of the new biography of John Coltrane by Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, gets it exactly right. The point of jazz is that it is a personal way of ‘telling a story’, as Lester Young put it. As a young man Coltrane was a journeyman sax player of no particular […]

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