Books and online resources about complicated music wanted, also listening recommendations
July 21, 2011 8:07 AM   Subscribe

I don't know much about music and I don't have a large music vocabulary - once you get past "bassline" I am reduced to saying things like "It was very squeaky yet melodic somehow, you know?" I would like some sources for critical writing about more complicated modern music.

Although my parents are big classical music nerds, I've never found "classic" classical music of the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms variety very accessible or interesting. Up until a few years ago, I definitely preferred basically the alternative music of the eighties - the Mekons, old punk music, early Elvis Costello, maybe some more experimental stuff like the Pop Group or Rip Rig & Panic - often bands influenced by experimental music and free jazz.

In the past five years or so, I've gotten more interested in more complicated music performed by people with more classical training - but I have no vocabulary to describe or explain it! I would really like some online or printed critical resources that talk about free jazz, minimalist music like that. (See what I mean about no vocabulary?) I am particularly interested in critical writing about particular works, reviews, commentary, etc.

Like, today I'm listening to Wim Mertens' Jardin Clos and A Man of No Fortune, and With A Name To Come. I like one more than the other and think one is a little better, but I have no vocabulary to explain why. I would also like to read some critical appraisal of both pieces. But where? My google-fu is failing me when I get past Wikipedia.

Relevant stuff I like and want to know more about (and feel free to recommend me more): Wim Mertens, Don Cherry, Elodie Lauten's Death of Don Juan, Arthur Russell, Miles Davis's electric stuff on Panthalessa, John Zorn, Ludus, Albert Ayler, free jazz generally, Marc and the Mambas Torment and Toreros, Glenn Gould's recordings.
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read it yet so I can't say with 100% certainty, but Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise sounds like it may have some of what you're after.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:39 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was just about to recommend The Rest Is Noise as a good introduction to modern (i.e., post-1900) classical music.
posted by dfan at 8:43 AM on July 21, 2011

For the jazz stuff I would look up examples of swing, bop, hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, latin, afro-cuban...(hell there's no end to different styles), and try to gain an understanding of what defines those terms and what they sound like. That way, when you hear similar sounds in other music you can describe it as "modal", or whatever. Same for defined rhythmic styles...sycopation, funk, etc.
posted by rocket88 at 8:48 AM on July 21, 2011

The fixyourmix blog had a few posts with compositional analyses of a few modern songs, which I found quite interesting as someone, like yourself, with a musical vocabulary that is lacking. Of course I can't speak to the quality of the analysis, because I don't have the tools or the training. Still, I found the posts interesting.
posted by nobodyyouknow at 9:35 AM on July 21, 2011

I think the words you are looking for are melody, harmony, and rhythm. That should cover most of your bases when describing what you like (or don't like) about a particular musician. Of course, this is all subjective, so you'll be able to express your point of view, but have someone just as assertively disagree; that comes with the territory.

I see you mention Don Cherry, but are you hip to Ornette Coleman? I think you can find a version of "Lonely Woman" on YouTube.
posted by Gilbert at 10:29 AM on July 21, 2011

Definitely The Rest Is Noise. I also think you might get something out of Miles Davis' autobiography, and then perhaps John Cage's Silence.

For a non-traditional approach to talking/learning about music, there's This Is Your Brain On Music which has been very popular since it came out.
posted by sunnichka at 11:27 AM on July 21, 2011

Try listening to Pandora - seed it with some of your favorites. As it plays songs, click on the popup menu to explain why they chose it and it highlights specific aspects of the song.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:57 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might be getting distracted by the fact that you're currently interested in modern music. For a lot of music, the basic ideas work across genres.

I'd recommend skimming some music appreciation books, and then reading any that appeal to you.

Some suggestions:

What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copland

Music: An Appreciation


Check your library. They probably have several options you can check out.

I'd also like to recommend Alan Pollack's outstanding analyses of Beatles songs. I know you're interested in talking about more complicated music, but this site gives you the chance to learn about appoggiatura in We Can Work it Out, parallel fourths and fifths in Eight Days a Week, and modulation in And I Love Her - and that's just the first three songs.

As you learn to identify and differentiate various aspects of music - timbre, melody, rhythm - you'll develop the vocabulary to name what you like. Starting with music you know well (I'm assuming you know the Beatles' work) can make it easier to identify what the writer is talking about.
posted by kristi at 5:46 PM on July 21, 2011

This doesn't quite answer your question, but you might be interested in listening to or reading some interviews with Glenn Gould. The way he talks about music is really interesting and accessible, I've found.

(Also, if you ever want to geek out about Gould, totally MeMail me.)
posted by equivocator at 8:27 PM on July 21, 2011

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