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Writing A Music Encyclopedia, Part I

Posted by Geoff Edgers  July 31, 2006 08:10 AM
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We love guides. They help us instantly pretend we know what we don't, a kind of Cliffs Notes for the adult set. Ted Libbey's "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music" just hit the bookshelves. After skimming through the guide - it does include 1,500 entries - we zapped Libbey a series of questions. Here's the first part today, with another two installments to come.

Oh, here's Ted:

libby.jpg

And here's his guide:

Libbey Book Cover Art.jpg

What's the hardest part of writing a guide like this?
Making the initial selection is hard, painful. Getting the facts right takes a lot of effort, yet is crucial. But the hardest part is condensing facts and impressions to what is essential: capturing the salient features of a composer's style or a performer's artistry in a sentence or two, defining contributions clearly but not simplistically.

Did you look at other guides? And, if so, what did you like about specific ones, and not like?
Dorling Kindersley has great pictures, in color throughout. Beautiful! But its organization is lousy; totally cluttered. Fred Plotkin's essay approach makes Classical Music 101 an engaging book to read, but not really useful as a reference. Paul Griffiths is erudite and ranges widely in the Penguin Companion to Classical Music. He puts in a lot of lists of works - which I don't think are necessary, since Grove has all that stuff. I think he goes overboard pleading for contemporary music, but that's his passion. No pics, no recommended recordings. The Harvard Dictionary is sensible, but too dry. None of these sources, or any other to my knowledge, offers an integrated web site with 75 hours of music that streams on demand, so readers with access to the Internet (nearly everyone now) can listen to a good deal of the music that is referred to in the book.

Have you ever used guides for anything, whether cooking or music, etc.?
I've used Robert Parker's guides to wine, which are models of informative *and* opinionated writing. Quite a few travel guides over the years, the best of which were the American Express guides (they were packed with information, brilliantly written, and you could slip them into your back pocket). When I was a student, I read lots of guides to music, and I still enjoy seeing what people have to say. My publisher, Workman, is celebrated for cookbooks, and I've fixed many a dish using one or another of them.

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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