Book Review: Landscapes In Music

Landscapes In Music, by David B. Knight

Although a relatively short read at just over 200 pages, this is the sort of book that will likely appeal most to people who have a love of geography as well as a love of classical music.  The more you love both of these areas [1], the more you will appreciate the space where this book sits.  That is not to say that this book is necessarily easy to read, as it can be more than a little bit dense at times, but a fondness for classical music and a familiarity with the language and concepts of contemporary geography go a long way in making this book easier to understand and appreciate.  Although this book would have been easier to read with a better prose style, for those who are looking for its factual and interpretative soundness, this book mostly delivers the goods even if the author does not always put his best foot foreword when it comes to dealing with the inevitable controversy of some of his language.  This is most evident when he is speaking about his preference for labeling music as Western as opposed to Euro-American:  “In good faith (and with tongue firmly in cheek), in an effort to be inclusive, we may wish to substitute the following for “Western” music: music-from-Europe-with-important-inputs-from-Russia-the-Americas-Australasia-plus-of-course-increasingly-East-Asia-and-notably-Japan-and-China-with-important-contributions-from-indigenous-cultures-around-the-world (15).”  The author should stick to writing about music and geography and not attempt to deal with areas that require sensitivity like politics, as he is much better talking about matters that do not require that she show respect for those who disagree with him.

The contents of this book are divided into nine chapters (including a lengthy introduction that lays the groundwork for a discussion of soundscapes, geography, and music as well as a short conclusion at the end that quickly ties up the material discussed in the book), and independent chapters on time and space in music, waterscapes approaching the “Sea of Tonality,” specific and generalized landscapes, imagined and mythical landscapes (including nationalism), searching for meaning in landscapes of extremes (like imaginations of heaven and hell), landscapes of death, survival, and remembrance (like battles and concentration camps), and music in places (concert halls and festivals and the like).  Throughout this book the author makes a great use of anecdotal cases of composers and the writings of previous geographers of music to discuss the various layers of geographic thought and concepts within music, from the sense of place composers write from and their approach to life and the world around them forming a specific signature to the way that instrumentation is used to recreate nature to the political commitments (including nationalism) that many composers have worked with, to the way that classical music is performed and the audiences that appreciate it.  All in all, this is a solid book that is full of worthwhile insights that works best when the author attempts to explain what others have done.

What stands out the most to me about this book is its many elegant touches of detail and description.  One can see composers and orchestral musicians in concentration camps hurriedly reworking scores for the surviving musicians they have, or see Jean Sibelius struggling with his alcoholism to write music for his beloved homeland in the face of Russian oppression or see Handel working to bring classical music to the masses rather than simply the privileged elites.  In all of these ways, and many others, musicians stamped their music with their own personality and character and also sought to provide some sort of intuitive insight about places being referred to in their music.  To be sure, this is not a book that is written for everyone, but for those who wish to ponder and muse upon the importance of geography to the composition and performance of music, this is a worthwhile book to read.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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