Art books

New music books to read this summer

You’d be forgiven if you listened to “It’s Gonna Rain”, an early work by American composer Steve Reich, and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t music as you heard it. The song premiered in 1965 and features the lyrics of a Pentecostal preacher delivering an impassioned sermon on Noah’s Ark in Union Square in San Francisco. Two recorded loops of the preacher’s voice begin in unison before one of the loops slowly moves forward, knocking the preacher’s voice out of sync as the title words disintegrate into a series of defiant patterns and phases.

The music sounds broken, elliptical, confusing. Reich heard endless possibilities.

‘It’s Gonna Rain’ is ‘not a fun track,’ as artist and musician Brian Eno puts it CONVERSATIONS (Hanover Square, 347 p., $27.99), an animated new book by Reich that has the composer romp through his career through occasional Q. and As with various contemporaries, bandmates, friends and colleagues. But the song was a “life-changing” experience for Eno and so many others in the book who credit Reich with breaking the rules of classical composition and offering a new way of think about music and the way we listen to it.

“Everything I thought I understood about the music had to be revised,” says Eno, referring to the first time he heard Reich’s early music. “It really made me rethink what music could be and what the act of listening was, because it made me realize that listening is a very creative activity.”

Reich would later abandon the tape recorder and apply the phasing techniques of “It’s Gonna Rain” to live instruments and vocals, experimenting with polyrhythms inspired by African percussion and Balinese gamelan. In tracks like “Music for 18 Musicians” and “Piano Phase,” time seems to move forward while standing still, the notes never exactly where your ears expect them to be. The joy of the book is to hear artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds – including Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and sculptor Richard Serra – rave about their relationship with Reich’s music and how it influenced their own creative processes. Composer Nico Muhly likens it to a spiritual pursuit.


A similar devotion can be found in DILLA TIME: The life and afterlife of J Dilla, the hip-hop producer who reinvented rhythm (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 458 pp., $30). This is an exhaustive study of the life and legacy of Detroit producer James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, by journalist Dan Charnas. Dilla died of complications from a rare blood disease in 2006 at the age of 32. In his short life he had an outsized influence on hip-hop and neo-soul, genres for which he rose to prominence as an indispensable collaborator with acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots and Common.

He is perhaps best known for his album “Donuts”, which was released by Stones Throw Records shortly before his death. But, as Charnas points out, this album was primarily edited by Jeff Jank, who worked for the label and was tasked with expanding tracks from a tape of unreleased Dilla beats while the artist was ill. Fans have poured hidden meanings into the songs, many of which are fake, contributing to Dilla’s almost mythical reputation.

For Charnas — who teaches a class focused on Dilla’s music at New York University and draws on musical analysis from NYU colleague Jeff Peretz — Dilla’s almost messianic following among artists and fans is based on his technical skills as a producer. Dilla also experimented with time signatures, machines, and polyrhythms. “Before J Dilla, our popular music essentially had two common ‘time sensations’ – straight time and swing time – meaning that musicians felt and expressed time as equal or unequal pulses,” Charnas writes. “What Dilla created was a third rhythmic path, juxtaposing these two time sensations, equal and unequal simultaneously, creating a pleasant and disorienting new rhythmic friction and a new time sensation: Dilla Time.”

Charnas uses diagrams throughout the book to help illustrate his thesis and how Dilla created his unusual and distinctive hip-hop beats. It draws a line connecting Dilla’s innovations to his pervasive influence among artists who rose long after his death, from rapper Kendrick Lamar to jazz pianist Robert Glasper, his music being the subject of conferences, festivals and fundraising. of funds.

But, unlike the many artists whose music he helped inspire, Dilla never rose to fame. His brushes with the success of the majors have always ended in disappointment, because of contractual disagreements, bad luck or creative differences. Despite many artists acknowledging him as one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, he never became a household name like Kanye West, a producer he has been compared to.


Getting other artists to love your work while your career languishes on the sidelines is one of the hard truths of BE MY BABY (Holt, 353 pages, $27.99), Memoirs of Ronnie Spector from 1990, written with Vince Waldron. In the new introduction to this revised and updated hardcover edition, Keith Richards calls Spector “one of the greatest female rock ‘n’ roll voices of all time.” As the lead singer of the Ronettes, the girl group that released the 1963 classic “Be My Baby,” Spector was an icon before the age of 30. “Every record they made was a No. 1. Or if it wasn’t, it should have been,” Richards wrote. In fact, Spector never had a #1 song on Billboard. “Be My Baby” reached only second place.

Spector, who died in January at 78, spent most of her career chasing another hit record. He never came. The closest she got was “Take Me Home Tonight,” a 1986 Eddie Money hit single that featured her vocals in the chorus. Instead, her marriage to Phil Spector, who produced “Be My Baby” and was later convicted of murder, derailed her recording career and personal life. The abuse she endured in the marriage has been well-documented, but is no less shocking on subsequent readings of the memoirs: he threw a grilled cheese sandwich in her face for snooping around her office. He wouldn’t let her tour with the Beatles out of jealousy. He was secretly married when he started dating her, and when they finally got married, he forced her to live as a recluse in a California mansion, demanding obedience and controlling her to the point that she felt she was suffering from mind control.

His dangerous obsession with his wife, captured here in heartbreaking detail, was so complete that he ordered a life-size plastic inflatable mannequin of himself to sit in the passenger seat of his Camaro, so she wouldn’t ever be seen. driving alone in Los Angeles.

Alcohol nearly destroyed her career, leading her to seizures, car accidents, and failed live performances. But the memory remains that of redemption. Although Spector vividly describes how she was brainwashed by Phil Spector, who died last year, her Spanish Harlem toughness touches every page of the book. Her struggle with infertility and her strong desire to become a mother eventually lead to a triumphant moment of self-discovery and happiness.

In a new postscript for the book, written during the pandemic, Spector, whose life will be the subject of an upcoming biopic, sounds confident. She aligns herself with other women in the entertainment industry who have survived exploitation and calls on the industry not to hold the most abusive men accountable. For too long bad behavior has been attributed to eccentricity, she says. Cruelty becomes “the price you pay for brilliance” as powerful people inflict pain on others in the name of creative genius.

But “the world has changed,” she writes, “and I don’t see it going back.”


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