Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Composer on the Coffee Table

1986: When the copy of Morton Feldman Essays spilled out of the envelope, addressed by hand in Peter Garland's distinctive felt-tipped printing, I realized at once that the day would come when I would have to be an owner of a coffee table. Although the book, edited and published in a quixotic and bankrupting labor of love by Walter Zimmermann, was only a paperback, and its typos and transcription errors would soon become terms of distress for the picayune, it was, and remains, a gorgeous volume, faced with Philip Guston's portrait of his friend M.F., and a book that wants to be displayed, and nowhere else but on a coffee table. The essays in the book have since been republished, edited and corrected, but there is no substitution for the original edition.

Coffee table books are a special genre, and only a small handful of books about recent composers qualify. Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, by Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft certainly belongs, and is a real treasure, if only for the pages here about The Owl and The Pussycat, a last glimpse of the composer at work, his hands, his tools, his notes. I have been to more than one recital in which the accompanying pianist has insisted on playing from the manuscript reproduction found here rather than from the engraved sheet music. That reproduction, in the context of the photo essay about its creation, has taken on its own aura of authenticity.

Some books about composers have been relatively short-term occupants of my coffee table. The John Cage issue of the Revue D'esthetique and Philip Blackburn's Enclosure 3: Harry Partch and the Burning Books anthology The guests go into supper have all taken their turns in the table top rotation. If I could afford a copy, I would certainly book space for one or the other volume of Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, a book that my local library will only let me peruse in the reading room. At the moment, place of honor goes to the new Meyer/Zimmermann volume Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (which the library has kindly let me borrow, but I am already loathe to return).

No comments: