book reviews

Books about contemporary music
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Understanding Music:
Philosophy and Interpretation
by Roger Scruton

I n Understanding Music, traditionalist Roger Scruton puts forth his thoughts about Western music, further developing his ideas expressed in Aesthetics of Music where he defended the classical forms over modern-style twelve-tone music. The appeal of music, says Scruton, is not just established by convention, but also by its intrinsic structure and expressiveness. Scruton believes that because the meaning resides in the music, we cannot just string together random notes, as many contemporary composers do, and expect people to learn to enjoy it. But Roger Scruton struggles to justify why his preference for the older forms is not just a matter of taste.

These questions touch on the relationship between music, language, and emotion. Scruton writes as a music critic, taking a philosophical and descriptive approach, rather than an analytical one. Criticizing Schönberg's rejection of the diminished seventh, Scruton writes, "Many of the modernist sound effects had themselves become banal--far more banal than the diminished seventh chord, since they belonged to no coherent language that could inject them with musical meaning." This is contradictory: something can't be banal unless the listener expects it. What Scruton probably means is that the lack of any comprehensible musical structure makes much contemporary music inherently uninteresting. On that point, I would have to agree.

Twentieth-Century Piano Music
by David Burge

I n this book, David Burge describes the works of major piano composers of the 20th century, including Debussy, Schoenberg, Ives, Ravel, Scriabin, Bartok, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Copland, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, Crumb, Rzewski, and Martino. Burge alternates between factual histories of the composers and descriptions of their works, along with a well-reasoned but sometimes harsh assessment of their place in musical history. Still, Burge finds something nice to say about most of the composers, no matter how awful their music. Two exceptions are Ligeti, whom Burge disses with only two paragraphs, and Erik Satie, whose connection to surrealism Burge seems to miss.

Burge is not a neutral observer. A composer himself, he reserves his highest praise for the music of Charles Ives, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and his friend George Crumb, whose Makrokosmos Vol I, played by Burge, is featured on the CD included in the book. The CD also contains Burge's rendition of Berg's and Bartok's sonatas, Berio's Cinque Variazioni, and some ragtime tunes by William Albright. The CD is not representative of 20th century music, but the book contains fragments of music from each composer throughout the text. Burge also offers a few performance suggestions for the works that he has performed.