"You get a medal," announces Stephen Walsh after I admit to devouring the second book of his mammoth two-volume biography of Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971 (Knopf), in a few days. Actually, Walsh deserves the medal; Stravinsky's life and work has stymied biographers for decades.
"Second volumes of biographies of great figures are very often rather dull, aren't they?" muses Walsh by telephone from his home in Wales. "They tend to recount meetings with the Queen, various honors, and trips around the world. But with Stravinsky, that's not the case." Despite fundamentally transforming Western music with Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Les Noces, Stravinsky still struggled to support a flotilla of friends and relatives. Undaunted by the composer's multilingual archives, Walsh, who learned Russian for the project, compacts an avalanche of details into a monumental portrait of the perpetually harried genius. Stravinsky chronicles the composer's endless concert tours, unsuccessful angling for film-score gigs (then as now, Hollywood remains insensible to substantive music), and determination to make the then-fashionable post–World War II serial language of Anton Webern his own. Walsh disperses Stravinsky's biographical smoke screen and limns the prescient image making abetted by collaborators and ghostwriters such as Walter Nouvel and Robert Craft, the composer's aide-de-camp and amanuensis.
The Second Exile surpasses the descriptions of music in its predecessor, A Creative Spring. About the astounding 1957 ballet Agon, Walsh writes, "Stravinsky weaves a surreal musical tapestry from behind which the dance is no more than faintly heard, like costumed figures glimpsed through a series of colored gauzes lit at an angle." The author also admires Stravinsky's late music. Walsh explains, "I felt more apostolic about the later works because they're not so well known."
In these pages recently, I tussled with Carrie E. A. Scott over Trimpin. I have no regrets except for my mealy-mouthed definition of sound art. I should have quoted Brandon LaBelle's Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (Continuum): "Sound art as a practice harnesses, describes, analyzes, performs, and interrogates the condition of sound and the processes by which it operates." Background Noise is mandatory reading for anyone interested in sound, listening, and sound art.
And though it won't hit bookstores until September, Steve Lacy: Conversations (Duke), an arresting anthology of interviews, already has me excited. A disciple of Thelonious Monk, Lacy helped revive the soprano saxophone, battling the bygone instrument several years before John Coltrane repopularized it with "My Favorite Things" in 1960. Conversations abounds with Lacy's canny insights, like "Monk represents for me the defense of a supreme equilibrium by the importance he gives to rhythmic values [and] to harmonic proportions." And "Money is necessary, like the air you need to breathe. When I have some, it's not important; when I don't, it's crucial."