JSM Book notes: Music from Three Points of View

Mick Jagger

Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger

By Christopher Andersen

Gallery Books, New York, 2012.

384 pages, $27

Mick Jagger was of course one of the central figures of popular music in the final third of the 20th century. In the 21st, he remains the dynamic and it seems everlasting force behind the Rolling Stones: complemented, of course, by Keith Richards.

One of the many gossipy revelations (or claims) of this gossipy book is that Jagger and another central figure in recent musical history, David Bowie, had a sexual relationship.

Andersen is in the personal-revelations-about celebrities business. Heck, he’s gotten five books published on British royal family related scandals alone, and that’s only one sixth of his canon. He’s no musicologist. So if you buy the book, expect to read things like this, the excerpt published by the New York Post on July 9, 2012. I don’t think their fans will be shocked by the notion that Bowie and Mick were both bisexual. But as for actual encounters between them … Andersen is getting slammed on this, by his own interviewees.

If you want to take part in that sort of debate, you’ll need to read this book. The Winnipeg Free Press calls it “crassly candid.” That might be right – or it might be “crassly lying.” If you don’t care to make that decision, you probably won’t need this.

Keith Richards’ own memoir isn’t all that old yet, so I think I’ll give it a link here.

And let’s give a listen to what you really need to know about the Stones.

Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism

By Jessica K. Quillin

Ashgate Publishing, London, UK, 2012.

188 pages, $99.95

You don’t necessarily think of music when you hear the name “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” If you are educated in English language poetry, you think when you hear that name of a handful of renowned poems: Ode to the West Wind, Ozymandias, To a Skylark, etc. The poems can be given musical significance, of course, for example as the background music to a dramatic reading like this.

If you prefer your literature in prose, you might remember that Percy Shelley was the husband of Mary Shelley, née Godwin, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

But Jessica K. Quillin, in this new book tells us that music formed a rather important part of Shelley’s view of his own craft. Shelley, accordingly, was intrigued by music, and indeed he could equate music with love. She reminds us that in Epipsychidion (1821), Shelley asks his beloved:

are we not formed, as notes of music are,
For one another, though dissimilar;
such difference without discord, as can make

Those sweetest sounds, in which all spirits shake

As trembling leaves in a continuous air?

That final image, “trembling leaves in a continuous air” has important ambiguities. When you first read it, you likely see an image of leaves on a tree shaking as the wind passes. But “continuous air” is an odd expression for wind.

“Ah, yes, those fancy poets love to use extra syllables,” says the philistine. But sorry, sir, Shelley doesn’t. “Continuous” here suggests the Italian musical term “continuo,” a reference to the harmonic structure of a piece.

An air, likewise, is a song-like vocal composition. An air can involve a trembling, or tremolo, effect.

In short, although even after reminding ourselves of all of this the phrase “trembling leaves in a continuous air” might still call to mind an image of the wind passing through a tree, we can also see that Shelley is teasing us still with the thought that we (all of us, not just the poet and his Emilia!) are formed “as notes of music are,” because this sylvan image is itself formed entirely of words of musical significance. (Oh, I left one out: a printed musical score is composed of leaves.)

Indeed, in 2004 Maria Ljungdahl, a Swede who has studied music at Gothenburg and Stockholm, composed a score for Epipsychidion, in an effort to make explicit its musical quality. Ljungdahl’s work was for a strong quartet or quintet. You may listen here. It is only fair to warn you, though, that it does take some getting used to.

The price of books, nowadays, takes some getting used to, as well! The Quillin book is aimed specifically at university libraries as the buyers, and their budgets can presumably accommodate the $99.95 charged (a mere $89.96 if you buy it through the publisher’s website). But some of us individual book lovers will baulk at such numbers.

Finally, (at least for our short list) this year has brought us further items for the science-and-music shelf. One of them that is rather off the beaten path, but that I recommend, is….


The Musical Brain: The Evolution of Music, Language, and the Brain

By Abel James

James Strategy, LLC, Austin, TX 2012

e-book only, $3.99

This appears to be a self-published book. So far as I can tell, Abel James the author and James Strategy LLC the publisher, are one and the same.

No matter: this is the age in which we live. The old-fashioned gatekeepers of the age of the clunky printing press are no more. Abel James is a bright guy, a graduate of Dartmouth College (a college dear to my heart, since I’m a great admirer of another of its alum, Daniel Webster), and the successful marketer of self-help diet books and related materials.

James begins this book with a provocative quote from Charles Darwin: “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” They are mysterious, in short, because it isn’t obvious that natural selection can account for them.

So: what does? We have to look for what is true of music not in this or that contingent tradition by “across cultures,” James suggests, such as the way in which musical scales have five to seven pitches per octave, “remaining within the range of the capacity of working memory.”

James believes Darwin and others were misguided in looking for specific selection value in music. Music, rather, has developed by piggy-backing on neural capacities that may have evolved for quite other purposes.

James addresses also the question of what are the neural consequences of music. What does it do to the brains of musicians? With that question, unanswered, I will leave you.



Here, though, as a musical and comedic end for our brief literary tour, is the clip of a hysterical take on the story of Frankenstein and his monster. One wonders what the Shelley family would have thought. Thanks, as always, to Irving Berlin and to ….



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