Tag Archives: Music


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

Words without Music: A MemoirWords without Music

Written by: Philip Glass

Narration by:  Lloyd James


“Words without Music” is a memoir of Philip Glass’s transformation to creative adult.  This is a journey taken by every child–with greater and lesser degrees of actualized creativity.  Glass explains how love by others transforms his life and why self-actualization is the fountain of creativity.


This is certainly not a new revelation.  Socrates, through the words of Plato, characterizes self-actualization with the dictum of “know thy self”.   Self-actualization is explained as the penultimate goal of life by Abraham Maslow.

Glass recounts his childhood with a description of his ex-Marine father, and school teacher mother.  Glass’s father is a small business man who raises his children in a rough New York neighborhood.  Strength, determination, and adventurousness come from Glass’s father.

A CHILD’S MOTHER (The method-of-living key to Glass’s growth as an artist.)

The soul of Glass’s family is his mother.  She is the conservator, the method-of-living key to Glass’s growth as an artist.  Glass explains how his father feared little in a neighborhood of gangs; while managing his record business with an iron hand.

A FATHER (Glass learns how to overcome fear in working in his father’s record shop.)

Glass learns how to overcome fear in working in his father’s record shop by walking the proceeds of the record business to the bank at the end of the day.  Glass sees himself, as though in a mirror, when he chooses not to tell his father of a customer’s theft of a record.  Glass knows his father will act reflexively by over-zealously punishing the thief.

Glass strives to be a good student and is accepted by the University of Chicago based on academic tests rather than high school graduation.  Glass chooses to become a musician based on early experience as a flutist, and later as a pianist.  He finds through counseling, from a Julliard alumnus, that composing rather than playing music is more conducive to his innate ability.  In these pursuits, Glass’s mother is his rock, his supporter and adviser.


After graduating, Glass chooses to travel to Paris in pursuit of a composer’s education.  He is mentored by an older woman who provides the technical skill and stern loving support he needs to continue his journey toward self actualization.  Glass chooses to leave his mentor after two years.


He travels to India with a woman of his own age.  Glass sees himself in a way that requires reinforcement from others.  “Others” are lovers, friends, and teachers of the ancient practice of yoga.


Glass returns to America with a wife, with whom he has two children.  He lives in New York and works as furniture mover and taxi driver while pursuing his education as a composer.  Glass is approaching thirty.  He begins to have serendipitous success.  The first big break is an opera called “Einstein on the Beach”.


Glass’s journey is symbolized by his dissection of the works of Jean Cocteau; i.e. particularly La_Belle_et_la_Bête (Beauty and the Beast).

Glass argues that Cocteau’s works are about human creativity and transformation.  The symbolism in La_Belle_et_la_Bête is the story of Glass’s life.  The rose in Cocteau’s movie symbolizes beauty (Glass’s body of work). The key is the method (Glass’s mother). The horse is strength, determination, and speed (Glass’s father). The glove is nobility (Glass’s renown as a composer). The castle is a prison that can only be escaped with love from another (Glass’s three wives, his children, his mentors, and friends). The Mirror symbolizes who you truly are (this memoir of Glass’s life).

This is a nicely written and narrated memoir of Philip Glass; considered by many as the most influential composer of the late twentieth century.

La_Belle_et_la_Bête (Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast staged as an Opera by Philip Glass):

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Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

The 30 Greatest Orchestral WorksThe 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

Written by: The Great Courses

Narration by:  Professor Robert Greenberg


Learning a new language is a sadly neglected discipline in America.  Because other languages (other than English) are not required in primary (kindergarten to 12th grade) schools, American college courses play catch-up to compete with the rest of the world.  As one gets older, the likelihood of learning a new language is problematic if not impossible.  An exception may be the language of music.  “The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works” is a lecture series by Robert Greenberg that offers a spectacular introduction to the language of music that can be learned by all.

Though this audio book is 24 hours long, each chapter is an entertaining revelation.  Greenberg intersperses music word definitions in reviewing orchestral works of twenty-two famous composers and artists of the 17th to 20th centuries.  Each definition is vivified by an orchestral performance and an interpretation by Greenberg.  Greenberg begins with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and ends with Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”.

One does not have to be a classical music lover to appreciate and enjoy listening to Greenberg’s lectures.  In truth, a classical music lover might be bored, or bogged down in disagreement, with Greenberg’s analysis or opinions.  For the rest of us, Greenberg is an entertaining and erudite guide to the language of music.

Did you know that a ritornello is a fragmentary refrain while a rondo is a theme that recurs through the course of a performance?  When a single soloist plays an instrument and then the orchestra tunes in, it is a solo concerto; when multiple soloist play and the orchestra comes in, it is a concerto grosso. This rudimentary information helps one understand structure in an orchestral performance.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

An orchestral performance is designed to elicit thoughts and ideas in an audience’s mind.  Listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” or Debussy’s “La Mer”, one can hear spring springing and sea churning.  In some examples, knowing something about the composer’s life offers insight to the emotions represented in an orchestral performance.


The tumultuous life of Tchaikovsky is a case in point.  Tchaikovsky is a man out-of-place in 19th century Russia (and probably today) who married a woman to hide his homosexuality.  The dissonance in his life informs his music.  Some composers are inspired by mythical stories.


They translate those stories into music like Camille Saint-Saëns in “Danse Macabre”, a tone poem and mythical story about death that appears at midnight every Halloween.


Well known composers, their lives, and works are briefly dissected by Greenberg.  There is Mozart’s precocity and his ability to create a performance at one sitting because of a “mind palace” capability that catalogues musical ideas in a way that allows him to write what he sees in his mind.  Greenberg notes that Mozart hated sitting down to write music. It bored him to have to sit down and render a production when it was already clearly displayed in his mind.

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820Greenberg writes of Beethoven’s loss of hearing from an early bout of typhus and how his depression is overcome through music.  Greenberg suggests that Beethoven reinvents himself.  At the first performance of his “Ninth Symphony” in 1824, Beethoven is deaf.  He is hyperactively moving his head, body, and arms over appreciation of the “Ninth Symphony” performance while unaware of the overwhelming applause from the audience that is behind him. It is also surprising to hear that the piano is a favored instrument of Beethoven when it is considered a lesser instrument of the orchestra.  Greenberg explains that Beethoven pushed the piano to its limits with his music.

Greenberg touches on Aaron Copland and Appalachian Spring which is noted as a late comer to the classic symphonic tradition; partly because of a German bias against American musical talent, but also because of a nation still searching for its identity.  Copland is born in America but studies music in Paris between 1917 and 1921.  This is at the beginning of the Jazz age which is soon followed by the Great Depression.  “Appalachian Spring” is a paean to the marriage of ballet and music more than a story about either Appalachia or the season of the year.  In one sense it seems to denigrate some of what Greenberg writes about earlier orchestral works because it seems only slightly related to life and more related to musical structure.  Even so, the structure of theme and variation, a significant part of the lecture series, are referred to by Greenberg.

The most political of the composers of which Greenberg writes is Dimitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer lives through the Stalinist Terror.  Greenberg tells of Shostakovich’s denunciation by Stalin’s apparatchik and Shostakovich’s falsely confessed rehabilitation.  The false confession allows Shostakovich to write “Symphony No. 10” that capsulizes citizen victimization by Russia during the Stalinist Terror.  The Russian public understands the true meaning of the symphony.  Their wild applause, along with Shostakovich’s denial of the symphony’s meaning, protect him from government reprisal.

In Greenberg’s last lecture, he makes a plea for new composers’ music to be performed. Greenberg implies the language of today’s composer needs to be heard. Their orchestral voices tell today’s stories. New music composition is viewed by Greenberg as the lifeblood of the orchestral art’s future.

There are many interesting notes about preferences, tempers, tragedies, and extraordinary abilities of composers in Greenberg’s lectures.  The audio book format is perfect for this genre of art; particularly in the hands of an erudite professor.  One cannot expect to be fluent in the language of music after finishing Greenberg’s lectures but it is a strong beginning.

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Audio-book Review By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight) Website: chetyarbrough.com 

BEETHOVEN'S SHADOWBeethoven’s Shadow

By Jonathan Biss 

Narrated by Jeff Woodman


This is a panegyric for Beethoven and musical artists; i.e. a tribute to what makes Beethoven great and musicians talented.

In this two-hour narration, one begins to understand why Beethoven’s music is important; what makes the difference between a good musician’s performance, and a great musician’s performance.

Jonathan Biss began taking Beethoven seriously at the age of ten. Biss’s introduction to music became an obsession that began with emotion felt in listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas.  He began practicing Beethoven’s most difficult pieces to develop muscle memory to exercise his technical talent.  However technical mastery left an “in the moment” appreciation of Beethoven’s genius that eluded Biss until later in his career. Biss debuted at the New York Philharmonic in 2001 at the age of 21.  He is the winner of the 2005 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award which acknowledges his insight to musical quality and musicianship.

What Biss makes clear to a reader or listener of this Beethoven vignette is that muscle memory, though technically important, is only a beginning understanding of Beethoven’s immense contribution to music and musicianship.  Muscle memory is spectacularly revealed in this 3 year old’s musical debut:

Like the imprint of morality when a child is born into a culture, muscle memory only gives musicians an outline of one’s musical talent.  Musical talent fills in the outline based on personal interpretation of a composer’s work.  Biss explains that each performance becomes a musician’s own, through an “in the moment” understanding of the composer’s melodic structural genius and intent.

Biss shows that Beethoven’s contribution to music is in his ability to offer structure to a world of talented musicians and future composers who can tell their own musical story. Some stories are or will be great and some not.  Biss infers that every performance of a Beethoven Sonata by the same musician can and should be different because it reflects the genius of Beethoven and the fundamental talent of the musician.

An inherent weakness in Biss’s vision of musicianship is the negative influence studio recording has on great talent.  Recording studios engender mediocrity in some musicians because studios lack emotive triggers which influence “in the moment” musician’ creativity.  An artist playing to a microphone is more influenced by muscle memory than emotive musical interpretation.  Microphones are recorders of information, without emotion, while audiences are emotive; i.e. they become participants in musical performance.  Audiences affect musical performance, they are a catalyst for “in the moment” experience.

There is an element of salesmanship in this vignette because Biss is planning to produce recordings of all 32 Beethoven’ Sonatas.  One is tempted to buy his first two albums to see how he escapes recording studio mediocrity.

On balance, “Beethoven’s Shadow” offers insight to how far Beethoven’s shadow extends into the music world, what “real talent” is in composers and musicians, and what is gained and lost in studio recording of great music.

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