The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music gifts, Part 4: Norman Gilliland’s mini-stories about composers, history, music and performers make a great companion to listening | December 23, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Christmas is almost here.

And in some ways I have saved one of the best gift suggestions for last. You could give it to someone else, or use that gift card to get it for yourself.

It is Norman Gilliland’s new book of classical music anecdotes, “Scores To Settle: Stories of the Struggle to Create Great Music.”

First, here is some background.

There is so much to like about Wisconsin Public Radio, which remains one of the few public radio stations in the country that still takes classical music seriously in its schedule.

And one of the best things to like is “Grace Notes,” the story, a minute or so long, that is drawn from the history of classical music and the biographies of classical music composers and performers.

It is researched, written and read out loud every weekday around 11:30 a.m. by longtime WPR host Norman Gilliland, who has been doing it for 12 years. (Gilliland is also the voice of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square.) In the Madison area, tune in to WERN 88.7 FM.

This fall, Gilliland published his second volume of “Grace Notes” (2002) — this time called “Scores to Settle: Stories of the Struggle to Create Great Music.” The paperbound volume is 400 pages long and costs $21.95

It’s a very readable volume organized with one story for each day – including weekends – for the calendar year.

Each of the 365 short stories story is usually about one page long, between 250 and 300 words, and many have a small black-and-white image to break up the text and give you a personal sense of the subject.

And it is very informative as well as entertaining and enjoyable. It has a 15-page bibliography as a testament to the care and hard work with which it is researched, and a 10-page single-spaced index that tells you how many different composers, performers, impresarios and others are included from all periods and genres of classical music.

I spoke to Gilliland (below right) about his book during an interlude in his daily broadcast.

“Each one takes about two hours, half research and half writing,” Gilliland says, who has written a total of about 773 with a back-up of another 40 or so not found in either volume. It’s all about editing and cutting, and I like that.”

Published by Gilliland and distributed by the UW Press, the books have proven popular, Gilliland says. (They are available at local bookstores and on amazon.com, among other places.)

How does he decide on a topic?

“It’s usually hit-or-miss, unless a specific one comes to my attention. I usually cruise through references – biographies, letters, autobiographies, memoirs – and see if there are nuggets I can use.  I need a beginning, a middle and an end and a point. You get pretty fast and efficient at doing it.”

The idea is to humanize music.

The whole point is to make it clear that the process of music, from concept to execution and performance, is a human one,” Gilliland says.

“Whether you know anything about classical music, read these books as stories about people. In a blurb for the first volume, Studs Terkel said these are stories about everyday working people who happen to be in the music business.

“And don’t worry about whether you can pronounce the names. The important thing is the story line.”

Does he learn something new about music, despite his deep background, when he doing them?

“That’s the criterion for being in the volume,” Gilliland says. “It has to be something that is not familiar to me, or at least a new angle on a familiar story.”

“It has bluntness, like wire copy, and shows a radio influence,” says Gilliland, who says he gets e-mails from the public and professional musicians with questions, clarifications and praise.

Is it fun to do?

“It actually is. It’s never a matter of drudgery,” he adds. “I never thought of it as anything but fun. It’s like crossword puzzles in a way. You have to have a format. It’s a good discipline, like writing limericks or sonnets.”

Have you read Gilliland’s anecdotes or heard them on the radio?

What do you think of them?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

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