February 7, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman is a nuanced portrait of one introverted, book-loving woman's life in Beirut, a character as fully realized as I have come across in years.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"'An Unnecessary Woman' is an utterly unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates."
After graduating college, I worked a brief stint as an engineer in Kuwait, the country—the city I had grown up in till I was ten. My return, though, was not a happy one. I cared little for my job, wondered what possessed me to think I would be interested in engineering concerns, or really, anything of a practical matter. I had no friends, and my family was stuck in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. I felt confused, stressed, emotionally drained, and ever so lonely. I lasted less than a year before going back to grad school, the greatest invention for ‘not yet ready for life' tenderfoots. What kept me sane during those bleak months was embarking on a personal project: I was going to teach myself to listen to music. Every evening after work, I would put on one album and listen for an hour or two, a solitary communion.
Years later, when I sat down to write An Unnecessary Woman, I would use that experience to mirror my character's. The novel might be about Aaliya, a blue-haired, 72-year-old recluse in Beirut, but she and I have more in common than I care to admit.
The list below consists of some of the piano music that Aaliya talks about in the novel.
Chopin: Ballade No.1 In G Minor op.23, Waltz no. 2 in C-sharp Minor
I can't think of a better place to begin than Chopin; his melodies are exquisite and poignant—hopelessly, unabashedly romantic. In the novel, Aaliya stated that if she never listened to anything other than Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin, she'd consider herself a lucky human being. I would as well. I include the two pieces above in the playlist because those are the ones she mentions, but you can't go wrong with most of the Polish composer's work. The Rubinstein recordings of them are stellar, though they might sound a bit old because of the technology. If you need other choices, I like Alexandre Tharaud, or the young pianist, Alice Sara Ott for the waltzes, and there are good recordings of the Ballade by Evgeny Kissin and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Bach: The Goldberg Variations
I sometimes think that Glenn Gould's the Goldberg Variations (second version) might be the greatest recording in the history of mankind. It has been so lauded that liking it these days seems almost a cliché—almost, but not so, because it remains brilliant no matter how many times one listens to it. A genius performer plays a genius composer and the symbiotic result can make the most jaded of us blubber like imbeciles. I'm certain that at the gem-encrusted gates to Heaven, this recording is played on a continuous loop.
Bach: English Suite #2 In A Minor, BWV 807
I can listen to any composition by Bach, anything, anytime. Though the second English Suite, particularly its Bourrée, is so impeccable that I can never listen to it without a wide grin plastered on my face. Ivo Pogorolić and András Schiff have delightful recordings of it, but my favorite is by Martha Argerich. Whenever I feel blue, whenever I feel that hope has left this sordid world of ours, I put the Bourrée on and become human again. Try this: the next time you consider that George Bush is painting landscapes instead of languishing in a small cell, or heaven forbid, some ex-friend sends you an image of one these paintings, listen to the Bourrée. You'll thank me.
Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor, K. 1
An underappreciated composer, Domenico Scarlatti has composed some of my favorite sonatas. The one in D Minor is short and sweet, guaranteed to hook your mind for hours after you listen to it. The Ivo Pogorolić CD of the Scarlatti sonatas is wonderful.
Beethoven: Sonata for Piano No. 31 in A-Flat Major, Op. 110
Just like his late quartets, Beethoven's late sonatas are so ahead of their time. Beethoven predicted almost every musical invention that was to follow him (should music have retired?) or maybe it was that these sonatas influenced so many composers. Once more, I chose number 31 because Aaliya mentions it in the novel—you can't go wrong with any of them. The 110 is excruciatingly beautiful, painfully so. Beethoven knew the end was coming and this was his response. I usually like Jonathan Biss for Beethoven's sonatas but I don't think he has recorded this one yet. András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida have stunning renditions, but if I were to pick, I'd go with Piotr Anderszewski at Carnegie Hall.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 In C Minor, Op. 111
What the hell, one more. Aaliya doesn't mention this one in the novel, but it's my favorite by far. Op 111 to me is the most forward-looking piece ever written. The trills near the end, I believe, are Beethoven's way of considering uncertainty, about notes that aren't notes, and they resolve into two lines, one at the lowest part of the keyboard, the other at the very top—so very distant—that collapse on each other into something very special, like everything that's uncertain and far apart finding its way to beauty. Breathtaking, literally, as in every time I hear it, I hold my breath in awe. It's twentieth century physics and philosophy in music form. Artur Schnabel played this exquisitely.
Enjoy the ride.
Rabih Alameddine and An Unnecessary Woman links:
All Things Considered review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Three Guys One Book review
Wall Street Journal review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists