Born in 1936, Steve Reich is an American minimalist composer whose work has been heavily influenced by jazz and African rhythms, as well as a deep Jewish spirituality. Known for his fascination with counterpoint, “phasing” (where the composition slowly changes incrementally over time), and his preference for rhythm over melody, Reich made most of his innovations in the sixties and seventies when minimalism exploded across the classical music scene with the work of such greats as Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Steve Reich is my favorite composer of all time – there really is nothing else like his work, he is a complete original who cannot be imitated.
I discovered Steve Reich while listening to WNYC2, which then became Q2, an internet radio stream run by WNYC in New York. Q2 offered something I couldn’t find anywhere else, something I didn’t even know about before I discovered it – modern classical music, by living composers. Q2 eventually became part of WNYC’s New Sounds radio stream, and it doesn’t play as much modern classical anymore, but it’s still a pretty good stream. At its height though, it had great radio hosts, and interviews and soundbites from most of the notable modern composers of today.
Reich’s most famous work is probably “Music for 18 Musicians”, which I have on vinyl. Of course, most performances of this piece include more than 18 musicians, because the original version required many of the musicians to play multiple instruments. Somewhere between Balinese gamelan music and Western impressionism, “Music for 18 Musicians” is best described as a 57 minute “pulse”. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the piece’s uncompromising originality just cannot be underestimated.
This is how I write, at a table in the corner of the backyard (weather permitting), on a 2018 iPad Pro with an Apple Magic Keyboard. I don’t use a mouse, I prefer the touchscreen. I’ve been writing predominantly on the iPad for a few years now. I tried to go back to a laptop but it just didn’t take.
Today I’d like to recommend some recent LGBTQ literature. I know that’s strange for a straight man to do, but I’m sure it’s not completely unheard of. None of these books were really under the radar when they came out, they’re almost all by major publishers, but if you weren’t paying attention to book news, or distracted by other books (which happens!), you might have missed these.
First of all, I’d like to mention In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, her experimental memoir of her experience in an abusive lesbian relationship. This book not only explores a taboo most people don’t know about, but does so in an experimental form that reveals itself as the only way Machado’s story could have been told. In my humble opinion, In the Dream House is one of the most significant LGBTQ books published since James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. They are very different books, but both are works of supreme artistry. However, while Baldwin cloaked his emotions in Giovanni’s Room, Machado is unabashedly raw and direct in her book (though at the same time…repentant?)
Secondly, I’d like to talk about Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a novel depicting the lives of a group of friends surviving and not surviving the AIDS crisis in the 1980s Chicago gay community. It’s an important story, one that was ignored at the time, and pretty much ignored since. Makkai is a straight woman, but her incredible research and compassion demonstrates that she did not take this task lightly. The book is informative, hypnotizing, heartbreaking, and infuriating. It’s great. And I think it would be a great TV show – my only complaint about the book is that it stopped.
Finally, last year (or was it the year before?) I read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Born in 1988,Vuong is a Vietnamese-American who came to this country with his family as refugees, and made a name for himself with his 2016 poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (which I haven’t read). On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong’s first novel, and it’s framed as a letter written from a son to his mother who cannot read. The book depicts the narrator’s journey to America with his mother and grandmother, as well as his tragic coming of age romance with a young man at the farm where he works in his new country. The book is raw, but beautiful and poetic. It can be easily completed in a day if no one’s bugging you.
According to Goodreads, I read 211 books in 2020. Obviously, it was an escape for me. I read many, many good books last year, but one stood out. I don’t think I would recommend it to most readers, but I at least want to mention it and let people know it’s out there, because it certainly wasn’t marketed very heavily. The book I am talking about is Hurricane Season (2020), by the Mexican author Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes), which depicts the murder of a “witch” (who may have been male or female) in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. Melchor is from Veracruz herself, and she casts perhaps one of the most unsentimental eyes I have ever experienced in literature on her native state in this brief, brutal novel. Hurricane Season was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, but lost out to Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, which I’ve heard is also brutal.
Melchor was born in 1982 and graduated from the Universidad Veracruzana with a degree in journalism. She has published numerous nonfiction articles and reporting in addition to her fiction, so it’s not surprising she has such an unsparing eye. But this is her first novel, and it soon becomes obvious to the reader, as it must have become obvious to Melchor, that fiction can sometimes tell truths that nonfiction and journalism can’t. I’m sure some of the details of this book were gleaned from Melchor’s work in journalism, but through narration she instills deep humanity into incidents that would just come off as statistical in reporting. Melchor has great talent, and a great mind and compassion with it, and the lives she brings to the page might not be exemplary or aspirational in any way, but somehow, while peering into her characters’ evil hearts, we see traits that we ourselves might share.
Some months after I read Hurricane Season, I listened to an interview with Melchor on the Between the Covers podcast. Her intelligence was rapidly apparent, but it was her wisdom and world-weariness that I found most affecting – she sounded like she has witnessed thousands of years of misery, and she’s not even 40. It was an enlightening interview, and it can be found here:
There have certainly been many innovations to the opera since Mozart breathed his short allotment of breaths, but I just feel as though he understood the medium better than anyone who ever lived. “The Magic Flute” premiered in 1791, two hundred thirty years ago. If you’re going to take a child to the opera, it’s still the one you go to. It was completed and premiered just months before his death, and seems to live in some sort of world of forms out of Plato – completely different from Wagner’s moody Teutonic myth orgies, Puccini’s and Verdi’s aching realism, and Philip Glass’s and John Adams’ ambiguously historical epics. What Mozart – and his music – possessed were wonder and whimsy, things completely alien to most composers, no matter their brilliance or time period. What can I say? He was freaking Mozart.
Currently reading – BUtterfield 8, by John O’Hara, 1935. Born in 1905, O’Hara was a bestselling novelist of his time and a prolific short story writer some people hold to blame for creating the “New Yorker” style of short story. This novel is based on the true, tabloid story of a socialite’s death, and it was adapted into a 1960 movie with a luminous Elizabeth Taylor. O’Hara died in 1970, and since he refused to allow permission for his short stories to be anthologized, most students of literature do not come into contact with his work.
Edward P. Jones is one of my favorite living short story writers. I say that well aware that he is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Known World, but I haven’t read that, and I’m here today to talk about his short stories. He has two collections, Lost in the City, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and characters intermix between the two books. But what I appreciate most about Jones is how diverse his stories are – in subject matter, in historical time period – but the two threads that run through most of them are Washington, D.C., and Jones’ matter-of-fact tone. Many writers limit their focus on one town, or city, or region, and Jones belongs to that tradition, but have no doubt: inside of Jones’ home city he finds limitless characters and limitless experiences.
Edward P. Jones was born in Washington D.C. in 1950, and was raised there. He went to the University of Virginia. Lost in the City was his first book, published in 1992. All Aunt Hagar’s Children was his third book, published in 2006. But the stories are closely connected. Each of the 14 stories in Lost in the City connects to their counterparts in the 14 stories of All Aunt Hagar’s children. Jones himself described the stories connected by “an umbilical”.
Jones mostly writes “long” short stories, which are often called “novelistic,” a trait he shares with Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. Of course, there’s at most a negligible market for “long” short stories today; but in my personal opinion, the “long” short story can be incredibly powerful and limber.
“Train,” by the Nobel Prize winning Canadian writer Alice Munro, to be found in her Dear Life collection, is one of my favorite short stories. I first read it in a “Best American Short Stories” anthology, and then I eventually purchased Dear Life and read it again. What astonished me upon my second reading was how different my memory of the story was from the real thing – “Train” was more expansive, more tragic, and more heartbreaking than I remembered. Munro holds back and holds back, until she finally reveals the cruel heart of the story and then examines it. It’s a work of genius by a true master of the short story, and serves to remind us that there is no need for Munro to write novels when her chosen art is more exquisite, more difficult, and more piercing.
Munro, born in 1931, is 90 years old now. She has never been the kind of writer who prances about in the media, but she is no Elena Ferrante, and there are illuminating interviews with the Nobel laureate to be found out there. She doesn’t speak about her writing a lot, but she does sometimes. She really doesn’t need to – the stories say so much by themselves. But for those of us who are fascinated by her stories, there of course could never be too much said by their author.
I haven’t read all of Munro’s fiction, but I’m working on it. I’m at the point though that instead of reading the books of hers I have not read, I’m planning to reread what I already have. A lot of critics compare her to Chekhov, but they are so, so different – the greatest similarities are their mastery of and their commitment to short fiction. Chekhov, despite his sensitivity, could be coldly ironic. Munro, however, merely stands there, witnessing what you’re witnessing in the story, but for her it’s the millionth time.
Currently listening. Tigue are a trio of percussionists who insist on making music that is leaderless, rhizomeatic, and mostly melody-free. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it, but it takes some getting used to. However, I’m still noticing wonders in this this album’s intricacies years after buying it.