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April 17, 2009

Book Notes - C. E. Morgan ("All the Living")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

C.E, Morgan's All the Living is a stunningly lyrical debut novel that blends themes of spirituality, identity, and our place in the world effortlessly. Easily one of the most remarkable novels I have read lately, this is a book I cannot recommend enough.

The Chicago Tribune wrote of the book:

"Here was a first novel so self-assured and unto itself, so unswerving in its purpose, so strummed through with a peculiar, particular, electrifying sound, that I found myself reading in a state of highest perplexity, and also gratitude and awe. Maybe the gratitude came first, for "All the Living" is a novel about the hardest things—about grief and lonesomeness, about desiring much and staying true, about loving through and forgiveness. It's a novel that makes you think on all of that anew, and that spares nothing and no one in the process."

In her own words, here is C. E. Morgan's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, All the Living:

A playlist for the novel might have provided a list of the best acts working in contemporary bluegrass, because the work is set in East-Central Kentucky where bluegrass is ubiquitous (as well as old-time, gospel, and country). Or, because the protagonist of the novel is a pianist, it could have been a ‘best of' primer for solo piano- a bottomless well of a repertoire, one easily dipped into with something like the Moonlight Sonata (speaking of ubiquitous), but a little more challenging to explore in a comprehensive manner without guidance. Instead, I decided to do something more basic. So many people express a genuine desire to explore Classical music, but the culture has left them without a functional literacy in the subject. The literature is so vast, so multifarious, it's difficult to know where to start (At the very beginning with a Hurrian cult song? With something familiar like The Marriage of Figaro or Barber's "Adagio for Strings"? With Disney's Fantasia? That aria you heard in a car ad on television?).

What follows is not comprehensive and not programmatic (though it is roughly chronological); these pieces don't impress through virtuosity alone, and I make no claims for their supremacy within the genre. I just believe that the best place to start is with whatever moves you. I trust that the intellect rallies when the heart is stirred, and so what follow are some of the most stirring pieces I've encountered in a lifetime of listening. No previous experience or knowledge required. The selections range from arias that will take only a few minutes of your time, to albums that require an hour or two. If you only have three minutes, download Yo-Yo Ma's version of Bach's "Prelude to the Cello Suite in G"-- it's perfect. If you have a few hours, reintroduce your mind to the effortful pleasure of deep listening with Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. Whatever you choose, I hope that it clarifies or soothes or arouses joy or brings you to tears. I hope that it introduces, or reintroduces you, to music- our most primal, our most visceral, our best language.

Josquin's "Ave Maria", Tallis Scholars

Josquin des Prez was a Renaissance composer of both sacred and secular music. His "Ave Maria" is a fully-realized example of a polyphony, a motet in which all voice parts enjoy a musical equality in ironic contradistinction to the larger religious and social world of the time. The four voices-- sinuous and free of vibrato-- interweave like reedy instruments in a quartet. The "Ave Maria" is a popular with early music groups, but the Tallis Scholar's excel at Josquin; his music requires an unobtrusive bass, moderate middle voices, and a soprano like a white ray of light—all blended together into a tone of bleached purity.

Bach's "Prelude to the Cello Suite in G No. 1", Yo-Yo Ma

Bach wrote six suites for cello (violincello in the 17th century), which together constitute a kind of artistic apex for the instrument. This prelude-- joyful, swiftly meandering, ordered yet improvisational-feeling-- is a perfect two-minute illustration of why Bach endures. For musicians, Bach can be a speeding train you can't get off until the final note, but consummate artists like Yo-Yo Ma help the listener forget how precariously the artist is positioned between technique and expression. Ma is the definition of poise, equanimity, and tone. If you like your Bach with a little more fervor, try a Rostropovich version of the same prelude. If you want your Bach with out-and-out passion and a willingness (like Callas in opera) to sacrifice tone for feeling, try Jacqueline du Pre.

Bach's Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould

One of the most important variations of the Baroque era, the Goldberg Variations aren't as popular as the Well-Tempered Clavier, largely due to the virtuosic technique required. Gould recorded the first version in 1955 as his debut, and the second in 1981. The first version is vivid, declarative, and fast (Gould would later dismiss it as "too fast"); the second is careful, sage, and more introspective (with slower tempi). Experienced together, as on the A State of Wonder CD, the listener has a unique opportunity to track the artist's maturation and reinterpretation of material. Simply put, this is a phenomenal CD. To stave off utter bafflement, note that the variation is on the bass theme of the aria, not on the melody.

Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus"

I pick a single Mozart piece with great fear and trembling. It's an almost impossible task. This motet may be the single most peaceful thing he ever wrote, a three-minute distillation of the all the longing and reverence at work in the human religious impulse. Designed for use during communion, this is as simple and beautiful as sacred music gets. For something completely different, try the stormy "Dies Irae" from the Requiem Mass in D Minor, or the Queen of the Night aria ("Der Holle Rache") from The Magic Flute for an example of why Mozart is unrivaled in his ability to show off the human voice.

Billings' "David's Lamentation"

Born a poor man and largely self-taught in music, Billings was an idiosyncratic American composer (contemporaneous with Mozart), whose choral work was (and is) vital to shape-note singing, also known as Sacred Harp. The piece offers some of the consonant pleasures of the era, but also employs hollow harmonies wider than a third, a common feature of traditional British modal folk melodies. There are a number of beautiful recordings of this piece done in a traditional choral style (fluid, legato, well-blended), but it's also worth seeking out the more robust, grating style of shape-note version. Shape-note practice emphasizes participation and not performance, which results in a marvelously abrasive sound located midway between hollering and singing.

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica), von Karajan conducting

A signpost for the start of Romanticism, Beethoven's 3rd bursts with ferocious joy, plangent despair and ultimate triumph—basically, everything that made Beethoven Beethoven. There is more life force in a single hour of Beethoven than in some other composers' entire oeuvre. He seemed determined not to let a human emotion pass him by. There are a lot of complexly-orchestrated notes here (it must have sounded like a wall of sound at the time of its composition), yet nothing is wasted—feeling is wrenched from every pitch, every cadence. Listening to Beethoven is not always easy, but the effort and the emotional expenditure involved can lead to a truly transformational listening experience. Don't insult the guy by giving this a half-hearted listen; give it your all.

Schubert's "Erlkonig", Jessye Norman

Unlike opera, art song is usually performed unstaged in a recital hall with piano as accompaniment. Due to its smaller-scale approach, art song is uniquely suited for the setting of poetry. Schubert set Goethe's "Der Erlkonig" early in his career (1815), but it remains a masterpiece of Romantic art song. Told alternately from the perspective of the devil-like Elflking, and the father and son fleeing his grasp, the song is urged forward by a restless, churning piano accompaniment. Though the piece is often performed by men, Jessye Norman excels at the three different voices, grasping equally the high fright of the child, the soothing father, and the growling hell of death. Her enormous and demanding soprano makes this song not just moving in its depiction of mortality's approach, but terrifying. To further explore Schubert's lieder, try Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the undisputed king of German art song.

"Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma, Joan Sutherland

If you think you don't like opera, give this aria a try. If it doesn't do anything for you, there may be no hope. This piece has everything: high drama, a choral backdrop, heart-stopping melismas and top notes without handholds. A highpoint of bel canto composition, it requires almost freakish agility and control from its singer. The entire opera is a vocal marathon. Considered by many to be the best Norma, Sutherland has an extraordinarily clear and effortless-sounding coloratura voice, one that never sacrifices artistry for its gravity-defying athleticism. They don't call this woman La Stupenda for nothing. If you like your drama with extra drama, try Maria Callas (sung one key down). But choose carefully: the Sutherland vs. Callas feud is nasty and long-standing.

Donizetti's "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from L'elisir D'amore, Placido Domingo

There were never three tenors, only one: Placido Domingo. You could pick any of fifty different arias at which he excels, but this is a staple of the bel canto repertoire. This is Domingo at his best, the kind of singing that scares away all pretenders. You'll find none of the stridency often associated with tenors, only rich baritone-like depth, and extraordinarily complete tone. This is what singers call singing with balls; it's what total artistic commitment sounds like.

Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, 2nd & 3rd Movements

For my money, Ives is the most exciting figure in the American canon-- perched precariously between the safe ground of traditional American song and hymnody, and the frontiers of 20th century atonality. The second movement of this sonata, an examination of Hawthorne, is fantastical, playful, inventively intertextual. The third movement—like much of Ives-- ushers the listener from one epoch of American music into another, then retreats again in a kind of dance step that eases the transition into this new, raw dissonance. His approach feels empathetic; he's gentle on a listener afraid of losing their tonal center. For a full recording of the sonata, try Gilbert Kalish, but there's also a recording of Ives playing the third movement on Who better than the composer to reveal how great he was—so quintessentially American, the most Whitmanesque of composers?

Henry Cowell's "The Banshee"

Scary, radical, important. If you ever meet a meet a rabid, slavering bitch from hell, she'll probably sound like this. Redefining what it meant to ‘play' the piano, Cowell introduced indeterminacy (the ultimate freedom of artistic choice) into performance practice and paved the way for the ‘prepared piano' of artists like John Cage. There's a recording of Cowell playing this piece available from Smithsonian Folkways. This is less than three minutes long.

Strauss' Four Last Songs, Gundula Janowitz, von Karajan conducting

Written just shortly before Strauss' death in 1948, these are sweeping songs set to orchestral accompaniment. Though not flawless- there's a certain degree of sentimentality in some of the tone painting- this is a personal favorite. A work that demands the most extraordinary lyricism from the biggest soprano voices, The Four Last Songs is a meditation on death, but conceived without angst or morbidity. There's a pervading sense of calm and acceptance, of well-earned fatigue at the end of life's day. There are lovely recordings of this from Schwarzkopf and Norman, but Gundula Janowitz is sublime—a voice full of tenderness, but steady and resilient enough not to overwork the emotionalism of the soaring vocal lines. If I could only recommend one recording, it would be this (or maybe the Beethoven; flip a coin).

C. E. Morgan and All the Living links:

Reading Group Guide for the book

Bookforum review
Bookmarks Magazine review
BookPage review
Cabbage Babble review
California Literary Review review
Chicago Tribune review
Christian Science Monitor review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Deseret News review
Edmonton Journal review
Entertainment Weekly review
The List review
Los Angeles Times review
The National Post review
Publishers Weekly review
The Second Pass review (by Maud Newton)
Three Guys One Book review
Winnipeg Free Press review

January interview with the author
Louisville Courier-Journal profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks