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Music Media Review Print



A Seminal Book by Stuart Isacoff

August 5, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:


Stuart Isacoff, Musical Revolutions; How the Sounds of the Western World Changed, New York, NY, Alfred A. Knopf, © 2022, Pp. [xii] + 308; $30.00 via the publisher; $28.19 via Amazon; also available on Kindle, $14.99 via Amazon.

This is The Wall Street Journal writer (who is also a degreed pianist and composer, and credentialed/honored writer about music (p. [307]) Isacoff's third book. His second was The Natural History of the Piano; The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between, New York, NY, Alfred A. Knopf, © 2011, Pp. 362, that, for whatever reason (perhaps it was not yet in the libraries whose holdings I searched?), I did not come across when I wrote my 5-part article: "A 'Mighty Handful' of French Pianist Composers." So, I got a copy of it from the library, read it, and then bought a copy of the paperback edition of it for my bookshelves (a few things reappear from it on this book's p. 106, ¶ 3, ll. 1-3) before tackling this one. I have plugged my way again through a library copy of Isacoff's first book, Temperament; The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle, New York, NY, Alfred A. Knopf, © 2001, Pp. 262. Why do I write all this before diving into this book? Because his writing style is a lot like mine (no footnotes!, which I do because it's impractical to use them on the Internet; I recently published a 326-pp. local history book deliberately written the same way), and because I've also done a lot of reading on, and written in these pages about these topics (I own a more recent [2007] book on the last of them that I discuss in Part 1 of my article about the French clavecinistes that I find simpler, more accurate, and more practical than his, which is really the history of the discovery and development of temperament, its mathematics and science, with the piano's keyboard as its illustrations, also mentioned there), as well as synesthesia, about which I wrote in another 5-part article, pp. 107-8. The 1889 Exposition Universelle (celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution, which, unlike our so-called one, involved the replacement of an existing government, not the separation from another nation: I'm a believer in linguistic accuracy) in Paris that I also mention in the French pianist-composers article is also discussed in detail, pp. 108-113, in Chapt 4: "The Alchemy of Sound."

This small-in-dimensions (8.5" h. x 6" w.) book is a seminal one, because of its breadth, inclusiveness, and perspective(s). There are 14 chapters (the last actually about the even more ancient Sounds of the Eastern World), all internally organized chronologically, as are the chapters themselves for the same category of music, (classical and jazz), six each, with the second set intermingling some of the classical with the jazz, between a 4-pp. Introduction and a 4-pp. Epilogue, and all cleverly, astutely, and succinctly entitled, all opening with epigraphs by other mostly well-known authors from antiquity to contemporary/now. Its very organization is impressive. It has a good 17-pp. 2-col. "Index" (pp. 287-303) to help you find again something you want to check up on. I must confess that my knowledge of jazz is not extensive enough to understand everything he writes about it – I had a serious problem with No. 10, "Bebop," but trust him because the rest are so good that I know it's my deficiency, not his. A lot of those chapters are also a series of anecdotes, some of which I was aware of, but many were news to me, as were a few of the musicians.

It's encyclopedic, but not an encyclopedia; you might want to have at hand a recent edition of Michael Kennedy's Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, or an equivalent (though I have always found it the most authoritative and complete of the ones I've looked at or into), to consult for names and terms in order to learn who they are and what they mean, such as those found in some quotes cited below, or to see their details. It's an original, astute, and erudite capsule overview history of Western music and its major figures, with surprising tidbits of other information, related or totally different, as in those quotes. Seventeen well-chosen, mostly full-page b&w illustrations and many period photographs embellish the text throughout the book; credits and sources are (un-customarily; they usually follow the ToC) found on p. [305]. The locations of the performances are often also mentioned and described.

Isacoff's writing style is very easy to read, flows smoothly, is pleasant and entertaining, often entrancing, but it's not a speedy read, because it's dense and 'chock full o' facts/info. His text is accurate, objective, rational, thoughtful, and thorough (albeit with an occasional oversight: while he is diligent in supplying the life dates of composers and musicians, he slipped up on Luciano Berio [1925-2003], who is mentioned on six pages with nary a date in sight; and he neglects to give the correct 'original' spelling/transliteration of the name of a Chinese instrument, the qin [ch'in], and its pronunciation [like Eng. 'chin'], p. 256). Other arts and artists contemporary of the composers and/or musicians are also brought into the story. He frequently uses spot-on quotes chosen from others, carefully worked into his own comments, such as this, concerning Impressionism: "Supporters of the trend congregated at a bookshop named L'Art Indépendant, where patrons included symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (whose 'The Afternoon of a faun' [L'après-midi d'un faune - MJW] was the basis for Debussy's orchestral tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn [Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune – MJW], a work the composer described as 'undulating, cradle-rocking music, abounding in curved lines'), and Gustave Moreau, Debussy's favorite painter." (p. 106; See what I mean?)

In fact, many of the texts lead to understanding the music from a perspective other than the one you may have had, and it makes you want to hear (or hear again) all the works mentioned. You'll learn of inventions presented at the 1889 Exposition Universelle you didn't know existed, such as Matthias Hipp's "'Electromechanical Piano' with a keyboard that activated electromagnets, which in turn affected small generators." […, and] "American Thaddeus Cahill / revealed the Telharmonium, an artificial orchestra of sorts, with tones broadcast telephonically [i.e., by telephone]. Though it had a mixed reception, Mark Twain weighed in positively with his usual wit: 'The trouble about these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one's arrangements. […] Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this[,] I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn't possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again'." (pp. 113-14; again, what I described.)

In the Jazz section, Chapter 6, "Emancipating the Dissonance" treats all the classical techniques and trends of the first half of the 20th century, such as Schoenberg's serialism (to which he attaches Kandinski's paintings, p. 163), and his atonal (pp.164-68) and 12-tone (pp. 165-70) works. Chapter 8 "A Great Noise," treats those of the second half, such as George Antheil's Ballet mécanique, and Henry Cowell's 'tone clusters,' Leo Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane, Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231, all making music out of mechanical sounds, and John Cage's 4' 33" making it out of silence. Chapter 12, "Process Music," covers Arvo Pärt's "'mystical' meditative" works (p. 211), (but his "tintinnabuli" is not mentioned, though it is clearly related), and classical trends, such as Steve Reich's minimalism (p. 211-15, & 222-23) for example, whose ancestor/predecessor was Eric Satie's works in the first half of the century (p. 212). The odd-numbered chapters (+ No. 10, already mentioned) deal with jazz musicians and their styles; some of the 'revolutionary giants' are not those that you might expect.

You owe it to yourself to read this book, even if a lot of these works and musicians are unfamiliar to you! You can't possibly not learn something you didn't already know.