Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions
While Sondheim and James Lapine were creating Sunday in the Park with George, the two went to the Art Institute of Chicago and stood with three of the museum’s curators before the miraculous canvas of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte. “What is that object up there?” they asked, pointing to an indistinct object in the middle distance. Instantly and simultaneously, the curators gave three different responses: a stove, a waffle iron, a . . . whatever. Sondheim and Lapine would eventually reimagine this comic incident in their musical’s second act. Similarly, such disagreements are common among musical scholars in deciphering composers’ manuscripts. What does this piece of marginalia mean? How should that symbol be interpreted? How was that chord supposed to function? Rarely do we have the composer’s direct commentary on how he approached his work and what his notes—both musical and textual—literally mean. After Stephen Sondheim generously agreed to bequeath his manuscripts to the Library of Congress, a series of videotaped interviews with the composer was proposed with the intention of anticipating the questions of future scholars. As such, and unlike the many, many interviews
Sondheim has granted to date, these were never intended for publication but rather to serve as a complementary crib to the manuscripts. On that basis the project went forward with Sondheim’s cooperation and the support of a grant from the Library of Congress.
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