Birthday Wishes to Lawrence Block


I’m taking the day off today, and my course is clear: rereading some favorite books by Lawrence Block, who turned 80 yesterday.

Block has long been one of my favorite authors, especially for three series characters: the alcoholic quasi-P.I. Matthew Scudder, gentleman thief Bernie Rhondenbarr, and introspective hit man Keller.

All the novels offer sardonic commentary on human misbehavior, and most of them concern the island of Manhattan. Indeed, Block “owns” New York City like no other crime writer.

Scudder’s New York City is a jungle, at times terrifying and ultra-violent. For many of his fans this is the definitive modern “tough P.I.” series. Bernie’s New York City is a ribald playground of silly cons and priceless art. This genial set of tall tales pairs neatly with the Dortmunder series by Block’s old friend, Donald Westlake. Keller’s New York City is a existential question, a quirky series of choices where the answer usually ends up being, “Yep, I’ll kill this person, too.” Yet, somehow, after reading a Keller book, one feels happy and refreshed.

For first time readers I’d suggest When the Sacred Ginmill Closes for Scudder, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling for Bernie, and Hit Man for Keller.

There are also many Block standalones. A stone classic for deep Block fans is the profoundly noir espionage saga Such Men are Dangerous, published a half-century ago under the pen name Paul Kavanagh. Just recently The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes offered a delightful riff on the pulp tradition that started Block’s career.

In the end, we read Block for his voice. Laughter and suspense are unforced.  Each sentence just falls into place after the next.

It’s a big birthday, one of those that ends in a zero, but it is Block’s readers who are are celebrating, for there is not just a new Scudder novella on the way but also a graphic novel adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die by John K. Snyder III that Block himself says is exceptionally good. I loved the Darwyn Cooke adaptations of the Richard Stark books so I’m looking forward to checking out Snyder’s take on Scudder.

Well, that’s all for now, it’s my day off, and I need to get back to The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. But I’ve gotten to know Larry a bit in the last few years and wanted to give a birthday shout. And: truly: if you’ve never cracked open a Block classic, what are you waiting for?

Related DTM:

Lawrence Block blindfold test.

The Crimes of the Century.


Concert at Spectrum


These violin sonatas by Louise Talma and George Walker are both in a “Midcentury American” style I love so much. Miranda Cuckson loves that era as well: Indeed, her extraordinary solo album of Ross Lee Finney was my introduction to another major voice from that era.

Both Talma and Walker studied with Nadia Boulanger, and in fact the Talma sonata was written as a tribute to Boulanger for her 75th birthday. As far as I know, neither sonata is played that often, and in both cases I have found only one recording. The Talma recording with Catherine Tait and Barry Snyder is good. Walker with his son has some editing problems. If anyone has a line on other recordings I’d be curious to hear them!

I met Talma briefly when I worked with the Gregg Smith Singers in the early 90s; she was also a mentor of my teacher Sophia Rosoff.  Walker is still around — he and Lorraine Gordon were born the same year — and I interviewed him for DTM a while back.

(Periodic reminder to DTM mavens that Walker’s book Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist is one of the best things I’ve ever read.)


Interview with Miranda Cuckson
Program notes to Fine, Gideon, Talma
Interview with George Walker

RIP D.J. Fontana

Longtime Elvis Presley drummer dies at 87.

It must be said, the “stop time” breaks in “Jailhouse Rock” are a hell of a thing. 1957.

In the obit, Fontana says, “I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big band music. I mixed it with rockabilly.”

Once they start playing time, Scotty Moore on rhythm guitar plays even eighth notes while Fontana plays swing eighths.

American music.


Blue Bamboula


In honor of his 80th (June 9), I’ve written about “The Syncopated Stylings of Charles Wuorinen” for NewMusicBox. Tyshawn Sorey contributed an impressive coda.

My wife Sarah Deming did a great editing job. She’s just the best.

Left on the cutting room floor was a long “background” intro. It took some time and clarified my own thinking but clouded matters in the essay.

I really wanted to get Nadia Boulanger’s name in there, mainly because she’s so important, but also because on June 24 I join Miranda Cuckson at Spectrum in performances of violin sonatas by Boulanger students George Walker and Louise Talma. Indeed, the Talma was a tribute to Boulanger for her 75th birthday.

Well, an important rule in writing is, “Kill your children,” and Sarah was right to convince me to, “Get to the point, already!” But, this is the internet, where unedited words can go on to infinity.  For those that can’t get enough Iversonian musings about 20th century composition, this is that dead child:

[Ludicrous amount of simplification and generalization begins:] Much of the most familiar concert music lacking improvisation written by American composers contains the echo of ragtime. Scott Joplin is a patron saint of Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein.

Around mid-century that influence was at its peak, going hand and hand with Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger. Stravinsky found syncopation a natural fit for his cubist phrases, and his “Ebony Concerto” is still the best piece in the conventional European concert idiom written for jazz ensemble. A stunning number of Americans studied with Boulanger, who taught Stravinsky as the greatest modern composer and encouraged Americans to “sound like Americans.” While experimentalists like Henry Cowell were on a different track (where a world music ethos was shaping the rhythmic conception), it remains the exception to the rule to find a valuable conventional American composer working from 1910 to 1950 who didn’t offer a few overt syncopations here and there.

After World War II, the syncopated flavor fell out of fashion, partly due to the discontinuous high modernism espoused by Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. From the other side of the tracks, experimentalists like John Cage and Morton Feldman dispensed with meter entirely. By the mid-1960s, many significant new music premieres lacked a perceptible beat.

That tide quickly turned around with the spread of minimalism in the early 1970s, where not just the meter but the harmonic language was made comparatively obvious. In the wake of starkly opposing forces —including the rise of black experimentalists connected to jazz, like Cecil Taylor and the AACM — hierarchies dissolved, and it has gotten harder to make encompassing and inclusive statements about the state of American formal composition ever since. [Ludicrous amount of simplification and generalization ends.]

I also introduced Elliot Carter as a foil but Sarah explained that was too many non-Wuorinen actors. Again, I concede the point. In case the digressive paragraph is of interest for a certain crowd:

There are varying levels of obscurity. Around the time of my Blue Bamboula immersion, I compiled a playlist of a few different performances of Night Fantasies by Elliott Carter. Night Fantasies is another masterpiece, or at least is said to be, and a slew of the greatest new music pianists have recorded it.  However, for my perhaps comparatively slow ears, nothing has ever stuck. I never learned the narrative of Night Fantasies, even with the score in hand. Blue Bamboula was Jerome Kern in comparison.

The Wuorinen piece goes along with “Peter Lieberson on Record.”