Sunday, 20 September 2015

Book review: Fear of Music, David Stubbs, Zero Books, 2009

Best read with Spotify or similar to hand.

Despite being subtitled "Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen", Fear of Music doesn't actually address the question of "why modern [read: avant garde] art is embraced and understood while modern [as above] music is ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated and listened to by the inexplicably crazed", as the blurb puts it, until its conclusion - a mere 26 pages out of 137. Rather, the first 111 pages set out the parallel histories of the two beasts.

The answers eventually proffered are: because the megabucks associated with modern art have familiarised the public with it; because modern music can feel like an infliction; because music more powerfully depicts the future, and the future is bleak; because humans are inherently more tolerant of visual than auditory chaos; and, a more general repetition of the first, because people aren't used to modern music.

Of these, I give most credence to the infliction and tolerance suggestions. To take the latter first, modern music much more commonly causes physical pain through sheer extent (in its case, volume) than modern art when experienced live, and auditory chaos also much more readily causes headaches (even at reasonable volume).

The infliction point is related. Although modern art often aims to challenge, it doesn't generally aim to cause as much unpleasantness to its audience as possible, whereas this does seem to be the aim of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Napalm Death and Sunn O))). A more appropriate comparison to these more extreme avant garde bands than the sublime (in an artistic sense) works of Rothko would be images of violence such as those force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

The very premise of the book is on shaky ground in this respect. In setting out the history of avant garde music, Stubbs includes such figures as Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Brian Eno and Radiohead - hardly musicians that lacked a popular following. Furthermore, he states that millions of people already do embrace avant garde music (albeit calling this "a tiny fragment of the overall demographic"). Most damagingly, he even says "it's hard to conceive that Duke Ellington's music was once considered 'dissonant' or to recapture just what a fissure the joyful peal of Louis Armstrong's trumpet represented" - i.e., that in these cases at least the avant garde has been wholly accepted by and subsumed into the mainstream.

Likewise, although Rothko is indeed extremely popular, the same cannot be said of all avant garde art. The Tate Modern may receive millions of visitors per year, but this is due more  to its cannily having been established as a symbol of trendy London and to the monumentalism of the building itself than to its housing works by the likes of Giacometti, which are barely glanced at by the incessantly shuffling crowds, despite a Giacometti having sold for $141m this year. The public much prefers shows of works by old masters like Rembrandt and Leonardo or impressionists like Monet to the Futurists or conceptualists.

Having said all that, I like the premise of the book even if it's a false one, simply because it gives Stubbs the chance to provide his parallel histories of these two fascinating movements. And I like the book itself: Stubbs writes well and with a keen eye for what to cover from what must have been a wealth of material, and includes just enough of himself to add an extra dimension without being intrusive. I read it in one day, fighting to keep going through straining eyes (see the glasses in the photo above).

The book is also a fantastic way of discovering new music, and I recommend having access to Spotify or similar when reading it so that you can appreciate what's being discussed as you go along.

I also like the ethos of Zero Books, which claims to have the lofty aim of fighting the contemporary elimination of the public and the intellectual.

However, while both the publisher and the author seek to stand up for the avant garde, I do wish they hadn't taken such a free-thinking approach to grammar and spelling in the edition of FoM I read: practices such as printing words in a meaningful order, including every word in a sentence but only as many times as is required, subject-verb agreement, apostrophe placement, knowledge of what commas are for and reserving paragraph returns for the ends of paragraphs do help to convey a message more easily, boringly conservative though they may be.

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