The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance -- The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age by Mark Prendergast (Bloomsbury, $32.95). You probably won't see this book under the arm of those lusting for social improvement and the cultural equivalent of an expensive manicure by attending a classical music appreciation soiree. Nor are you likely to find it in the knapsack of those jerking to techno music in some drug-fogged rave next to a dormant meat rendering plant. And yet you could.
The late-19th and 20th century history of "music as an immersive, environmental experience" is what Irish music critic Mark Prendergast is after here, "the drift away from narrative and toward landscape, from performed event to sonic space." So he doggedly tells that music's story in 498 pages of small type and, despite enough ignorance and wobbly judgment to fill the cargo holes of a transoceanic shipping fleet, there's something exhilerating and almost hilarious about it. Here is a musical mind that can start a story with Mahler and Satie and end with Hardfloor and the Chemical Brothers (and hit, at various stages in between, Percy Grainger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, La Monte Young, Les Paul, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Popul Vuh and Peter Gabriel, among many dozens of others).
There's scarcely a page in it where those who know this music won't find incompleteness and a rush to judgment. (Why, for instance, write about Xenakis and not mention his large electronic piece "Bohor I," which fits his purview perfectly?) But so great is Prendergast's enthusiasm and so unerring is his perception that larger things happen in recorded music than can ever be accounted for in our socially constricted ways of using it that his book is useful and rather wonderful in its way. For those who want, in one book, to be able to look up thumbnail sketches of Arvo Part and Country Joe and the Fish, this is it.
The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (Four Walls Eight Windows Press, $13.50 paper). The original title of this reissued book was so much better: "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture." They didn't use it though -- probably because there actually was a movie about Abbie Hoffman starring Vincent D'Onofrio called "Steal This Movie." It never even opened in Buffalo despite the wonderfully odd fact that Hoffman's last real job in the world was as the Massachusetts rep for Westwood Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Buffalo. ("Blessed with souped-up adrenal glands, the gift of gab and chutzpah, I had all the makings of a first-class Willy Loman.")
Nevertheless, this is, to many, one of the great American autobiographies, right up there with Lincoln Steffens'. Despite the depression that caused his suicide, fragments of America's greatest political Groucho Marxist remained right up to the end. In the afterword here, for instance, Howard Zinn tells us that while they lived underground he and Johanna Lawrenceson "ate at 54 of the world's greatest" European restaurants for free because "Abbie had a fake letter introducing them to chefs as journalists on assignment for Playboy." It's long overdue to have this book back in print.
-- Jeff Simon