That was the year…

A small (and belated) selection of what worked for me in 2008…

Elliott Carter
For anyone to reach 100 and still be working is amazing. When that individual is acclaimed as a nation’s greatest living composer, even more so. Concerts in the US and Europe, many by performers who’ve been closely associated with his music over the years, have been supplemented by diverse appreciations, some new recordings, and by the publication of Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Boydell and the Paul Sacher Foundation. It’s an important collection, supplementing the two published collections of his writings and the survey by David Schiff of Carter’s music (now in its second edition). It shows Carter being supportive, generous, affectionate, touchy, critical, to his family, friends and many of the leading figures in music in the US over the last 70 years and more, painting a vivid picture of cultural life in the USA. It’s also beautifully produced, with many evocative photographs (some familiar, but many published for the first time) and expertly edited with a sensitive and enlightening commentary, by Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler.

Big books
I started the year with the new Thomas Pynchon - Against the Day. I’m no slouch when it comes to reading, but I don’t start a book of this size and scope with any thought of finishing it quickly, and it kept me busy on and off for a couple of months. I’ve been a Pynchon fan since reading Gravity’s Rainbow as an undergraduate - the only novel of Pynchon’s I’ve not been able to make headway with is Mason and Dixon (but I know at some point I’ll try again). It’s no GR, but Against the Day - sprawling and diverse - is a great book. I finished (and am still finishing) the year with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: having read the short stories and journalism, it’s a book that I’ve eyed on (and that has looked back at me from) bookshop shelves for the last few years, and which I’m now having a great time with. It’s about … well, tennis, and drugs, and North American politics, and media, and consumption, and … unashamedly uncategorisable, beautifully written, very funny, and full of characters that get under your skin one way and another and situations that play out with an inevitability that’s both entertaining and tragic. Wallace battled with depression for many years before his death in 2008: the appreciations I read from people he’d encountered or taught during his life suggest to me that he was not only a wonderful teacher and mentor, but also someone who could meet someone once, at a reading, listen, talk, and make a big difference to that individual’s life.

I’m glad people still write long books (both of these weigh in over 1000 pages) - and by a long book, I don’t mean another multi-volume LOR-clone: these are big works of art that (shock) make demands on their readers. In an age of consumption and easy soundbites, it’s important to make time for things that take - and reward - effort. So - pick some difficult music to listen to, or grab that book you’ve always wanted to read but never had the courage…

Amongst all the blogs I’ve followed this year, JP Rangaswami’s Confused of Calcutta - engaging, curious, quizzical, self-deprecating, observant: a great blog by a great blogger.

I’ve started skiing at a (relatively) advanced age. I try to do something like this every few years - learn a new skill, preferably unrelated to anything else I’m doing at the moment (learning a new programming language doesn’t really count, though it’s good practice). Something physical (we spend way too much time thinking, planning, writing, modelling). It is great to experience what it really feels like to be a beginner again, great to go through the painful process of learning and interiorising basics, understanding with the body what you’ve rationalised, and through the body making the sort of discoveries and connections that take you past the first faltering slithers on a nursery slope to (ok, let’s be realistic here) getting down a blue run without undue anxiety, without falling over too often, and being able to pay at least some attention to amazing mountain scenery. Great musicians keep their learning habits intact throughout their lives - there are always new pieces to learn, new techniques to master - learning something completely new from time to time is a good habit to get into.

New guitar
OK, so this is personal. I’ve just acquired a D’Angelico New Yorker - classic 1950’s Jazz archtop, with a great unamplified sound and a warm, round tone on the (single-coil, neck-mounted) pickup. Not an original (John D’Angelico died in 1964) but a number are made each year in the Far East. Mine is 6 or 7 years old. Looking forward to playing it when I’m back from my travels.

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