Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen (Zero Books) Paperback – 24 Apr 2009
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About the Author
David Stubbs is a freelance British music journalist and author. Between 2004 and 2006 he was reviews editor for The Wire, the UK based magazine dedicated to avant garde and experimental music of all genres. Between 1987 and 1988 he was staff writer at Melody Maker, before going on to join the staff of the NME. As well as music, he also covers sport, film, literature and TV - his work regularly appears in The Guardian, Arena, The Wire, Uncut and When Saturday Comes.
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For those of us who listen to, as well as create, abstract and dissonant music it is a curious state of affairs. In the book Stubbs points out how culture programmes such The South Bank Show seem to have a blind spot for the most radical kinds of music, especially anything that is derived from rock or jazz.
The book is Stubbs' very subjective take on the whole matter, and probably would suit those coming from the rock or jazz fields, as that is Stubbs' obvious core listening area. Other reviewers have mentioned the eccentric typography such as paragraphs that seem to loop into each other. I'm still not sure if this is meant, or is just some weird effect produced by a design error. The declaration made by Zero is that there should be a space for intelligent books that are not constrained by the usual academic demand for sober and somewhat bland objectivity. Stubbs is serious about his topic, but he still finds plenty of room for humour.
The other overriding feeling I got from reading this was that Stubbs overlooks an essential element - there was nothing in the book to persuade me that people do "get" Rothko and other modern art. Stubbs cites the number of visitors to TATE Modern and corporate sponsorship of visual art as evidence, but that's not to say that those visitors or sponsors understand, or even like, the works on display. From my perspective, I can see how the paintings of Rothko are easier to understand - easier to like, perhaps - than the recordings of Stockhausen or Varèse. They're arguably less challenging. I'm not going to attempt to answer here why I think this might be - Stubbs doesn't really seem to offer any answers either, and he's written a whole book about it.
"Fear of Music" is not without merit, though. It is well written (typos excepted), easy to read and his enthusiasm is evident. The chapter on the lineage of music from Can through Throbbing Gristle and PIL to A.R. Kane and MBV is particularly good and would have made a great article (and perhaps did at one time, as much of the book was sourced from Stubbs' blog). Simon Reynolds has, however, written about the same music in far greater depth and with greater insight in his blog and in his books "Blissed Out" and "Rip It Up".
"Fear of Music" is definitely worth reading as an additional text if you've already read similar books by Simon Reynolds, Paul Morley and David Toop, but it's not really as essential and probably shouldn't be the starting point for anyone with an interest in these particular aspects of music and art.
The basic question in the book's subtitle is rarely addressed specifically, and the answer isn't that clear. Stubbs cites the massive popularity of the Tate Modern in contrast to a lack of a comparative equivalent in music. Well, yes, the Tate Modern does have a lot of visitors. But still, the vast majority of Britain's populace never step foot inside it? However, modern art is more ubiquitous than it's equivalent music. For example, Rothko calenders appear in card shops, but you're not likely to hear Stockhausen on their stereo.
Personally, I think the answer is to do with the senses. Seeing for example, Dali's 'Autumnal Cannibalism' or Botticelli's 'Venus' or (to keep with the book, some of Rothko's work) in the flesh is quite an experience. But on the whole, when you view visual art, you do so at your own will, and for as long or as little as you like. If you find something dull or disturbing, you can shut your eyes, look away, and move on to the next piece. Even a piece of art that you appreciate usually only gets between one and (at a push) five minutes of your attention.
Music is a different kettle of fish. To experience a piece of music, from start to finish is determined more by the composer and performers. Avant-garde music is very often purposefully, willfully and intrinsically at the fringes of being what is normally accepted to be listenable. The ears are a sensitive piece of apparatus, and people often don't have the patience or stamina to persevere through a full piece of challenging music. I must confess that much as I love a lot of John Coltrane's music, for example, I have to be in the right mood before I can listen to say 'Meditations', as it's a challenge, psychically speaking. Looking at a painting, however revolutionary, doesn't present the same kind of challenge. Like reading an uninspiring haiku, it's often a case of 'so what?' rather than feeling an assault on your senses which many challenging musical pieces can feel like. Whereas by comparison Rothko's work is pretty unobtrusive.
In terms of a wider audience becoming au fait with avant-garde music, it also doesn't help that the composers and cultural curators often have a fairly inaccessible front and/or an air of intellectual loftiness which can be very off-putting to the casual potential listener. A lot of Wire Magazine-approved music is highly conceptual. The problem is that you read about the concept, which can sound interesting, often fascinating, then the music itself can be a let-down. In any case, avant-garde music has a bad reputation with the general population.
However, maybe the crux of the matter is this: Music vs Art. For me music wins every time. Music has a truly transcendental quality to make an atheist feel exalted by a higher force. This power can work in the opposite direction too. Music can irk a listener to the point of horror/terror/physical nausea in a way that visual art struggles to get close to. As such, even the most out-there piece of visual art is less likely to offend someone's very being in the way that music can.
Whilst Stubbs doesn't particularly come up with any outstanding conclusions on the matter, the journey he takes us on throughout this short read is most interesting and written with enough wit and enthusiasm to inspire further investigation into the subject matter. You can easily read this book in one or two sittings and learn much from it. Highly recommended to anyone even vaguely interested in art and music.
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So you'd expect that most of the book would be concerned with that question.Read more
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