Lee Sandlin heads for the Mississippi | Bleader

Lee Sandlin heads for the Mississippi

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Reader contributor Lee Sandlin has contracted with Pantheon for two books, one being the still-unfinished "Wicked River: The Lost World of Hucksters, Pirates and Revivalists On the Wild Mississippi," which the publisher's describing as "a riveting narrative history of the Mississippi River during the mid-19th Century and its long-lost river culture."

Lee's just returned from overseas--he was an invited guest at a conference on World War Two at the National Museum of Singapore. Something to do with the 33,000 words he wrote on the subject for the Reader, I guess. (Here's Whet's review of The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass, which included that magnum opus.)

One of Lee's dispatches from Singapore included the news about the book contract as well as this nugget: "I was worried that they might not get some of the references -- I had a great image of the original Star Trek with Kirk and Spock disguised as Nazis -- but I asked one of the museum curators beforehand and he promised me that everybody in Singapore knows Star Trek. And it was true, when that image came up there was an immediate wave of recognition and laughter."

Whet adds: Since it's Friday, you should not work and instead spend awhile today reading Lee Sandlin pieces. Here are a few to get you started (besides "Losing the War," which is linked to above, and which is one of my favorite essays of all time; you can hear an abbreviated version on an old This American Life here ). As of right now leesandlin.com seems to be down, so here are some archival links. My bad: leesandlin.com. Links below have been updated.

* Classical-music criticism. Allow me to stump for a moment on this specifically; feel free to move down if this bores you.

If you buy the argument that classical music is dying (as opposed to transforming into some other thing that includes Nico Muhly, Sigur Ros, Lindstrom, Keith Fullerton Whitman, some Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood specifically, maybe DJ Shadow and Prefuse 73 if you're feeling transgressive), I think some of the blame can be fairly laid at the feet of classical music critics, who tend to be highly performance-based. E.g. if some virtuoso of note plays a piece with the CSO, the writing will tend to 1) come after the concert (so it won't matter much if you didn't go) 2) focus on the qualities of the performance with little to no regard to the piece (so the evaluation is hard to appreciate unless you know much about classical performance and specifically other peformances of the piece). In other words, it's written for a small, exclusive audience. It makes some sense, given the genre's focus on a repertoire, as opposed to pop and rock, in which live performance is almost always tied to a new piece of music by the person performing it, but still. If you grew up with little to no exposure to classical music, which is the case with me aside from whenever Garrison Keillor decided to go off on a tangent (which is how I discovered Bach's cello suites), I think you can be excused for not giving a shit.

I think this is a big reason why people have gone bugnuts over Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise (besides the fact, of course, that it's compelling and brilliant), because it's about the qualities of the music, which is a big deal if you're heretofore underexposed to a lot of it. And if you aren't interested in the piece, you sure as hell won't care who's playing it.

Sorry. My point was that since I started reading Sandlin's classical criticism, I've gotten a lot more interested in the subject. Even though they're reviews of specific concerts, they're really engaged in the works themselves, and remain interesting years after the fact. E.g.:

"I'm not denying that Ives was a patriot. His saturation in American pop culture, American music, American values and ideology and philosophy was so profound it amounted to a kind of religious ecstasy. The falseness lies in presenting him as a nice guy. He was just as American in his hair-trigger anger and furious xenophobia, and the radical originality with which he treated the forms of classical music sometimes seems prompted by a hatred of everything civil, decorous, traditional, and European. The turmoil of his music--the vast storm fronts of marches, hymns, jigs, ballads, hornpipes, and anthems--is really a kind of patriotic road rage, an urge to sweep away all traces of the foreign with blasts of pure homegrown energy. This can make him come off as nothing more than a foul-tempered crank, though it also resulted in the soaring grandeur of his Fourth Symphony, the Moby-Dick of American music."

Whether or not you agree with this interpretation of Ives, it puts you into a dialogue about the performance, the piece, and music in the context of American culture, which is a lot more interesting than an evaluative review of a single performance, the arts crit equivalent of a baseball-game recap.

Anyway, here are a few to get you started: Queen of Pain (on Maria Callas); Brilliant Heresy (on Furtwangler's recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion; I bought it on the basis of this review); Going to Extremes (Stravinsky, Schoenberg)

* TV crit: Entertaining gems in the wasteland of the most beleagured genre of arts criticism: Ugly Betty, Studio 60, Law & Order omnibus review, Cashmere Mafia (yeah, I know no one watched that, but this review got me and my friends into the online Beth & Val Show: "such a spiral of offhand absurdity that at times it seems as abstract and daffy as a painting by Paul Klee").

* Longer works: Saving His Life; The American Scheme; The Distancers; The Invisible Man

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