KNOWING WHEN TO STOP: A Memoir by Ned Rorem


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Wordy half-a-life story by tireless composer and tiresome raconteur and diarist Rorem (The Nantucket Diary, 1987, etc.). Rorem is one of the great 20th-century composers of art songs: brief, pithy, and often witty compositions that have become a fixture in the vocal repertoire. Sadly, his writing is as verbose and overwrought as his music is to the point. In this bulky tome, he is only able to recount the first three decades of his life, up to 1952. Raised in Chicago, he devotes the first third of the book to his young life, mostly focusing on his precocious gay cruising in the city's parks. The narrative then turns to music school at Curtis and Juilliard; his early days in New York City; and his artistic roamings in post-WW II Paris and Morocco, where he encountered such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomas, Jean Cocteau, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles. Rorem is such an egotist that his portraits, even when sympathetic, are often reduced to sometimes pithy, sometimes annoying aphorisms (Bernstein ""forever combined generosity with competitiveness""; John Cage is ""a fake...but a fake what?""). When he's not expounding barstool philosophy (""the artistic tendency is not there from the start...what is the gene of quality"") or overblown, ponderous prose (""I examined the world in a grain of sand, the civilizations in the furrows of that porous brick an inch from the eye, and wept at the limitless melancholy latent in this new perspective""), he's offering a catalogue raisonnÉ, as it were, of his sex life -- and incidentally of his musical works. His attempts to explain away his often blatant anti-Semitism and his use of coy asides (""I never told Dora, and hope you won't tell her now"") are just two of this memoir's more irritating features. A Ror-ation full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Stop already.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster