Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape

Rob Sheffield: Love is a Mix TapeNick Hornby: SongbookWhen is a music book not about music? It’s a valid question to ask if you stop to consider Nick Hornby’s Songbook, and Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. Both are ostensibly about music, and the role it plays in our lives. But if you’re serious–in a passionate sort of way, not a pipe-smoking, suede-patch-wearing sort of way–about music, you get on some instinctive level what it means to say that music is the soundtrack of our lives, something that provides not just background noise but also meaning and context. It’s in that context that both of these works fit.

This isn’t either writer’s first go-round with music. Hornby first came to wide attention with High Fidelity, whose protagonist and his friends are a handful of music-addicted arrested development cases, and drew further acclaim with the book About a Boy, over which the ghosts of pop and Kurt Cobain loom large. Sheffield, on the other hand, has contributed some great music writing to the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, turning in his first book with Mix Tape. That both books are about music would seem to be one of the few things they have in common, save for a biting sense of humor. Continue reading “Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape”

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise (2007)Books on music are always a bit of a crapshoot. Even the best-intentioned authors can deliver works that sound flat and uninspired, struggling to bring to life on the page what would give you goosebumps if it came through a pair of halfway decent speakers. So it’s a pleasure reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

It would be enough to read the writer’s lively¬†warts-and-all portrayals of some of the giants of twentieth century music. Happily, Ross doesn’t take the Alka-Seltzer approach (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”), preferring instead to have a smallish handful of composers–the likes of Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Cage, Glass, Reich, Britten, et al.–stand in for entire movements and scenes. It also helps that he doesn’t sketch the evolution of the century’s music as merely a sense of inevitabilities, where one thing follows from another as though it must. The parts are a mess, a set of accidents happy, unhappy, or contrived; the whole isn’t much tidier, and it’s to Ross’s credit that he doesn’t try to make it so. Continue reading “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross”