Nonfiction Notes

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. Actually, that’s not true. I read a good deal of nonfiction in the form of science journals for my day job, so when I read for pleasure I prefer fiction because I’m usually looking for a bit of escapism.

However, a couple of months ago, I read two nonfiction books that I thought might be of interest to some people.

So, if you went up to random people and asked them to hum something “classical”, I bet mostly everyone would almost immediately go, “Duh-duh-duh-DUMM!”, don’t you think? In The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri scrutinizes what is arguably the most well-known musical measure in history: the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Looks pretty simple, doesn't it?

Looks pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Now, a whole book about four notes might seem a bit tedious, but Guerrieri opens by looking at musical history and the forms that might have influenced Beethoven while writing the symphony, which is kind of cool. He then moves on and describes the impact the symphony’s opening has had on Western culture — starting from its debut in 1808 up through the current day. For example, early on it was postulated that the measure represents Fate literally “knocking at the door”. To me though, what was perhaps the most interesting realization is that so many political and philosophical movements tried to co-opt it for their own purposes, including both sides during the Second World War. Today, I think it’s hard to listen to the Fifth Symphony strictly as a piece of music. It’s so culturally ubiquitous that it’s almost transcended music to something that’s always been with us.

1355773940The First Four Notes is probably of prime interest to anyone intrigued by the intersection of music, history, and society, and perhaps those who are interested in how thought and criticism evolve over time. Though not exactly a page-turner (I read more about late 19th century existentialism than I thought I ever would voluntarily), I learned things and a renewed appreciation for a piece of music that I figured no one could illuminate anymore.

One thing though, even if you’re not interested in the book, I suggest that you take a half hour and turn of your phone and turn off your feeds and just listen to that symphony and try and hear it anew. It really is remarkable.

Three stars out of five, perhaps an extra one if you have Beethovophilia.

In a much more down to earth book (Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures), Noah Adams, who is perhaps best known as the former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, recounts the year in which at age 52, he decided to buy a piano, learn to read music, and learn to play it.

Adams describes his long interest in learning to play and how it was something he “just never got around to”. Well, that’s a feeling that I know pretty well, because several years ago (when I was 41) I decided to do the same thing: get a piano, learn to read music, and learn to play it.

Adams is a good storyteller and does a great job describing the uncertainty that can come in the wake of the decision to purchase a piano. Questions I knew very well: how will I know which piano to get? How much should I spend? What if I decide I don’t like it, or am absolutely terrible? Where do I even start?

407557591jpgThe story is told in 12 chapters and covers his successes and setbacks each month. For me, I liked comparing it to my own experience. It was interesting to see that he was too self-conscious to take a class and/or lessons (which is what I did) but first tried to use computer learning (the book is set in 1996, so computer-learning was still a thing in progress and there was no internet to speak of). That was largely unsuccessful though, and Adams turned to the extreme of an immersive “getaway piano camp” week, which given my discomfort for playing in front of people sort of turns my stomach.

Of course, it was really fun to read someone perspective on something so similar to what I had done, though because he worked for NPR, Adams gets to spice things up by interleaving stories of famous musicians that he was able to meet and interview during the year. The closest I can get to that is saying that the Beloved’s cousin is the drummer for Toby Keith’s band and I met him once three years ago.

Piano Lessons is a short, but charming story about an old dog learning new tricks. And that’s something I can completely endorse.

Four stars out of five.


21 thoughts on “Nonfiction Notes

  1. Those both sound really interesting – especially the second one. And it’s so true re: Beethoven’s 5th. I can’t appreciate it as real music anymore. I really need to take your advice and listen to the entire piece again. It’s been a while.

    • Adams’ book is a good, warm read. Good storytelling.

      It’s funny with the 5th, when i’m listening to the other movements you realize all the places you’ve heard them too!

  2. I think both of these sound fascinating, though I ended up Kindling (??) “The First Four Notes.” There were a number of brilliant composers–Mozart, Wagner (Richard, not Honus), J.S. Bach, P.D.Q. Bach, come to that (PDQ Bach is a fictional creation of classically trained musical humorist Peter Schickele (and I was lucky enough to see a presentation of PDQ Bach’s epic “The Magic Bassoon,” which is just what you think it is, and twice as funny)).

    I digress. Beethoven wrote so many amazing, top-shelf works in markedly different styles–compare the 6th (The Pastoral) to the 9th (The Badass), for example–that he seems transcendent to me. I like the idea of taking a piece like The Fifth, and bouncing seemingly disparate ideas off of it. (After the damage I did to Casablanca two Lents ago, how could I not? ;-) )

    I look forward to reading it once I get caught up on my Goodreads challenge for the year. I’m not a big non-fiction reader either, by the way, except for a good biography. Life stories appeal to me for some reason. Maybe because my own is so boring.

    Thanks for the tip.

    (The landmark version of The Fifth, of course, is Walter Murphy’s #1 1976 disco hit, “A Fifth of Beethoven. ;-) )

    • Ha, tom, I remember the disco version too.

      We went to a PDQ Bach concert once and took a very sheltered friend who knew classical music well, but not pop culture. She fumed for the first few minutes, since we kinda hadn’t clued her in. But then she got it.

    • Tom — I actually went to a PDQ Bach concert a long time ago! I’d sort of forgotten about that. I went with someone who knew of him, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Really fun.

      The Beloved and I were talking about how as teens, we just used to stop and LISTEN to music (albums at the time). And how that’s almost never done. Music is something in the background at home, or work, or in the car, but it’s almost always secondary to whatever you’re doing. There should be more times when listening is the primary activity.

  3. I prefer nonfic (reading) but also adore documentaries! I’m going to hardly-apropos-recommend one (if you haven’t yet seen it): Senna. I am not into Formula One racing, any kind of racing nor any sport, really. I know that you are but I don’t think that applies! I saw the trailer for this and added it to my DVD Netflix queue. It came last week and I watched in ONE go. That’s rare! I’m not saying it’s earth-shaking but it was a good story about a man I’d never heard of and who was sort of ‘something’ if you were into it. I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about racing (other than the politics being practically as dumb as ‘cos he doesn’t like you’) but enjoyed the watching.

    • MT — thanks for the tip. Some days when the Beloved isn’t home, I cast about for something to watch that she might not be interested in. That could be a good choice!

  4. (I read more about late 19th century existentialism than I thought I ever would voluntarily)

    Ha! Welcome to my world! I studied intellectual and cultural history when I was an undergrad, and the impact of ideas and art on what we call civilization still fascinates me. However, I’m still taken aback by how dense and turgid philosophy can be, even if the ideas are interesting (when explained by a good writer, anyway). In the 20th century it got even worse: the more modernist the philosophy, the harder it was to make out the subject and main verb of the sentences. :D

    I’ll make a note (no pun intended) to check out The First Four Notes. Curiously, I can’t find my old CDs of Beethoven’s Fifth, which is not my favorite Ludwig B. piece. (Mine is the 7th Symphony, which is IMO his most emotional and romanticized work.) I think this gives me an excuse to go to the CD shop—if they exist anymore. :(

    • HG — I will gladly leave to you all the philosophical and existential thought for the neighborhood! :)

      I’ve gotten so used to streaming things using Spotify or Pandora that most days I don’t even listen to music I actually own. Very strange world.

    • Penny will occasionally curl up on the floor next to me while I play, which is beyond endearing. But at times she’ll jump up and lick my face while I’m playing too. So there’s that.

  5. How cool, Steve. Thanks for the recommendations. I think it’s sad when people say they can’t do music because they’re no good at it. It just takes (lots of) patience, and a methodical approach. Play slow, pay attention, have fun. No one’s listening except the dog/cat.

    We heard a Bach performance just last night, the musician spoke about Bach’s incorporation of Biblical references, numerology and all this wild stuff. So right, it’s an intersection of many things, including culture and belief.

    • Amelie — I think if I could pick music up, then anyone can! I’m amazed at people who have a natural talent and perfect pitch — wow, what a gift. But I’ve loved my slow, steady improvement.

      I’ve been appreciating Bach’s music more and more — it’s very mathematical to me.

  6. Always love your book reviews. Thanks for the Spotify tip. Pandora is spotty (no pun intended) sometimes, nice to have a back-up.

    With classical music I go in jags. I had a Beethoven period, a violin concerto period (Mendelssohn’s being the winner), then genres (hooked on medieval?)… I think the music-listening-as-primary-activity was very entrenched with the vinyl generations, as perusing the album covers and liner notes were part of the whole experience. This carried over to CD’s for awhile, but technology always changes things of course.

    I learned to play guitar by ear as a child, and took a couple of piano lessons. Learned to really read music in school, when I picked up a few more instruments – we had a talent-impoverished orchestra, so everyone had to double up. I’ve been thinking of getting back to the cello for years, but can’t seem to get it in. Maybe the ukelele… that Jake Shimabukuro is something else!

    • Jazz — I think you’re correct about how those of us from the vinyl generation would lay back and listen to records along with the album notes — I always felt a little gypped when they didn’t include lyrics. Now to find lyrics, you have to troll around those tacky lyrics sites on the web. Though sometimes Pandora will have a tab with the lyrics, but naturally when I’m listening on my computer, I’m usually doing something else.

      I keep thinking that if I ever picked up a second instrument, it could be the cello. Actually, I love the big ol’ stand-up bass, but I don’t think there are many bass-pieces.

  7. Thanks for the book tips! Like you, I tend to read more fiction for pleasure, but in the last few years, I’ve found some great nonfiction that has been as captivating as good fiction. Mostly these are books on science or history written in a way that’s entertaining. (For instance, Stiff by Mary Roach.)

    The two books you wrote about sound interesting — especially the first one. It probably helps that I’ve played piano on and off since I was a kid. Given that, it might be interesting to see how an adult approaches the purchase and learning of a piano. I guess I could relate to that in terms of guitar, which I have a desire to learn, but have not…yet.

    By the way, you might be interested in a book I read awhile back, A Romance on Three Legs by Katie Hafner. It’s about a specific Steinway used by Glenn Gould.

    • Random — thanks for the tips! I’ve had a couple of people recommend “Stiff” to me, so I might have to check that out.

      I’ve also been fascinated by Glenn Gould as an artist, to the Hafner book sounds really good.

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