Thursday, December 04, 2008

Music: Not So Much the Food of Love, as Fuel of History [i.m. Odetta]

Congratulations to Alex Ross, passionate blogger, and winner of the Guardian First Book Award (among other accolades) for The Rest Is Noise, a history of the twentieth century in music. Yes, not a history of twentieth-century music, but a vast landscape of (well, primarily Euro-American) history through the compositions, lives and thoughts of the many men (and, like, two women) who reinvented classical music and the way that we hear.

The book thumped into my hands from the postman in April, a birthday gift from a music-loving friend delayed by - unbelievably - Amazon being continuously out of stock. Classical music is one of my great lacunae (I mean, like a Great Lake-una) despite having studied with Linda Hutcheon, one of the foremost opera theorists. I'm a tone-deaf, word-loving, visually-stimulated fidget and really *listening* is not something that comes naturally to me. All the classical music that I know is directly attributable to its use in films: Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in Jésus de Montréal; Astor Piazzolla's tangos in The Tango Lesson; the Gymnopédies in just about everything.

So, I expected the book to be a huge challenge, although I'd enjoyed reading performance reviews on Ross' blog. But it was exhilarating (although time-consuming because I had to read the paragraphs about diminished eighths several times) -- I'm not sure how to hear some of the musical twiddles that he discusses so ably, but I have a strong sense of what they might mean, not only as bird-flipping to the history of music (and its stuffier critics), but as agonised or ecstatic autobiographical and/or political expression, especially in his painstaking study of Shostakovich's relationship to the Revolution.

What's so exciting about Ross' book -- and frankly, so Guardian-y -- is that he puts politics, and personal politics, back into music, with a particular emphasis on (and love for?) composers on the left (not the party, partisan Left), and with a subtextual thread running through the book about homosexuality and 20th century music, which he writes about most affectingly when discussing Benjamin Britten and John Cage (not together). It's not an all-out "queering" of modernist music, but there is a subtle argument (I think) about the suppression of identity, both personal and political, that canon-making demands.

It makes for great history as well: the sweeping chapter on music-making and the Alphabet Agencies, and about African-American composers before the war, left a deep impression on me (see my previous post about contemporaneous labour poet Genevieve Taggard), although Ross is clear about the project's ultimate failure. And the history of Weimar unfolded thrillingly differently when read through the swirling schools of competing German (and German-Jewish) composers. (Once the book hits the Cold War and its stochastic sounds, it lost its impact a little for me, although I enjoyed the description's of Cage at work).

Considering twentieth-century music demands something more than musicology, and Ross starts the book with the need to understand Wagner and his unique place in music and history, opening up the question of the ways in which music can shape national identity and can be used as propaganda (see above re: Shostakovich), but also an international language of exchange and co-operation.

And also protest: although Ross treats lightly the place of popular music in political and cultural history, (although he does end the book with a shout-out to Bjork), his account of the various musical agencies put together by FDR presages (and gives a historical context to) both Alan Lomax's work (which he does discuss, briefly) recording American folk, and the folk revival of the 60s and 70s, as music and the civil rights movement entwined. By a fluke of history, Ross' win co-incides with the death of a singer whose career exemplifies the undercurrent of music in American popular history, Odetta.

It's a shame that Ross didn't cast his net a little wider, into contexts where women musicians, and musicians of colour, were making the waves (although the success of recent books like Hand Me My Travellin' Shoes and In Search of the Blues, as well as PBS' series on the blues, suggests a burgeoning interest, and a refusal to let these histories disappear -- all three depend -- and thrive -- on oral history). The real threat of that loss is flagged up by a story in caustic style by today's Guardian diary:
More evidence of year zero at the BBC arises from discussions with Bewick Films, the Northumbrian independent, which saw significance in the 70th anniversary of Billie Holliday first singing the classic Strange Fruit, with its images of slavery, and the inauguration of America's first African American president. They suggested a documentary examining the role of the song in the civil rights struggle, which was considerable. Some believe it was a better anthem than "We Shall Overcome". Wasn't this, they said, a perfect idea for BBC4's musically themed Friday nights? Err, no, for "unfortunately the channel feels that there is insufficient appetite" for a Holliday documentary. Moreover, "His career is well served within the BBC archive." Still, for real fans, Billie's legacy endures. We miss him.
Blood on the leaves, blood at the roots: a history that need writing and writing again.

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