Davis Stubbs’ Fear of Music, Zappa, and some ephemera

On a recent trip to the local bookstore I picked up two books: The Real Frank Zappa Book and Fear of Music. The former is pretty well-known: Zappa is a recognizable name among most people, even if they cannot tell you a single song of his besides “Valley Girl,” “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” and maybe “Peaches en Regalia.” In his memoir he talks about his career, life, and his thoughts on politics, religion and culture. The other book, by David Stubbs, is less well-known. Published by Zero Books, Fear of Music hopes to address the differences in public reception of contemporary art and avant-garde music; its subtitle is “why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen,” although he seems to drop the contemporary art stuff in to offer a counterpoint to his main focus, music.

I

 I’ve been aware of Zero Books for a while. Like many small left-wing presses, their track record can be a bit spotty. Repeater Books seems the most consistent, and Verso’s Radical Thinkers series is great; Haymarket has some good stuff too, though they all have published plenty of mediocre stuff too. Their model seems to be based more on quantity than quality. Zero’s major claim to fame is as the publisher of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a slim and fairly easy-to-read meditation that has become a sort of ur-text for an online post-leftism. It focuses mostly on the culture created by the End of History and Thatcher’s pronouncement that, “there is no alternative [to neoliberal capitalism].” It’s still a worthwhile read, especially given how much is packed into its 80-or-so pages. (They also published his book Ghosts of my Life, which I haven’t read yet but I have heard very good things about.) At the same time, Zero’s other most (in)famous book, Kill All Normies, is a boring and poorly-researched book on online culture war politics that lacks any nuance or insight, while equivocating epic meme nazis and wannabe school shooters on 4Chan with Tumblr teens who question their gender. Needless to say one should enter any Zero Books title with some skepticism. 

Fear of Music is unfortunately plagued with more typographical errors than should really be acceptable from any major press. There are also some factual mistakes that should’ve been easy to catch: Alma was Gustav Mahler’s wife, not his daughter; Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz came out in 1961, not 1959 (maybe he was thinking of The Shape of Jazz to Come); it’s not “The Aphex Twin.” And sure, Afrika Bambaata sampled Kraftwerk, but did four suit-and-tie German synth nerds really “set up the template” for hip-hop? This is especially egregious since hip-hop soundtracked block parties in the Bronx as early as 1973, and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europa Express (the song Bambaata sampled for “Planet Rock”) came out in 1977. 

Errors aside, I’m enjoying Fear of Music. It points towards a real problem––not in the world of contemporary music, really, so much as with the world around contemporary music. There is this sense of removal and detachment from modern music: no one really believes that this music can be world-changing, that it really means anything anymore––and if they do believe it, it’s a self-delusory fantasy to keep themselves creating art despite everything else (I have no idea what that’s like…). It’s a real conundrum. Though it is questionable how world-changing the music of the past was to begin with, we still get a clear sense for how the music of that era mirrors or presages the values, anxieties and tensions of the culture in which it was created. But when we look at our own music, when we dig into the most innovative, exciting and challenging music of today, what we see is a multiplicity of artists going their own ways, trying to make sense of a fractured musical landscape in their idiosyncratic way, formulating their personal aesthetics from the ashes of a dead civilization, and building instruments from electronic parts and computer programs. I think this multiplicity and fracturing is a good thing––it destroys the unipolarity of the musical establishment and allows for a much more diverse array of artists than ever before––but it does present many difficulties for the modern musician, who either falls back on the same stayed tropes with some new permutations or costume changes, or has to reinvent music from the bottom up on their own. To put it into a blunt dialectic, you are either a Stravinsky or a Schoenberg. 

Is there anything intrinsic about our culture’s emphasis on the visual rather than the aural at play here? I don’t think pure sensory overload is to blame: we are an image-saturated culture, but people can look beyond that to find gems in modern art, and music has stayed culturally important despite the glut of post-industrial noise. But music in such a culture as our own becomes sonic wallpaper, a pleasant sensation designed to augment one’s experience of your day-to-day rather than a fully engrossing artistic and aesthetic event. Any number of things are to blame for that: the Walkman and iPod, streaming services allowing you to hear pretty much any music you want, anytime and anywhere, Muzak and the use of popular songs in commercials, in shopping malls, at sports games, you name it. Most people don’t experience music as they do other works of art, which are preserved in museums sequestered from our daily lives. Streaming services allow one to experience television and films in much the same way as music, as with mobile gaming, though the experience of those media is far more totalizing than music, tapping into the visual, aural, haptic and many other senses. Live music certainly hasn’t gone anywhere, and it seems to be alive and thriving alongside the theater and visual arts, and all that I’ve mentioned above is why live music is such a valuable part of our contemporary society.

Fear of Music opts to reframe the existing musical narratives rather than offering any new ones. Stubbs does many things right, but he also continues to make some very odd mistakes. Hip-hop is barely mentioned, and times he does talk about it are questionable. The scope in which he discusses these musical trends is still irritatingly  narrow, moving from Vienna at the turn of the century to Paris and then to London and New York after the world wars. I cannot fault him too much for this, however, since it is the conventional narrative of music history, and there have yet to be many histories (at least as far as I know) that really branch out into the rest of the world and become truly multi-polar histories of music. It is a lot to ask of musical historians to attempt to synthesize not just the entire musical history of Western culture but of all non-western cultures as well, whose musical traditions are radically different: distinct ideas and approaches to harmony and melody, the social function of music, notation versus improvisation, texture, etc. Other parts of the book stink of the same sort of post-punk nihilism that characterizes Mark Fisher and other British music critics, lamenting the decline of NME and the Wire and the failures of the musical avant-garde, all that dour English nonsense. Though I guess I don’t blame them too much for that: have you ever listened to British pop music? 

I may be criticizing the book, but I do want to say that on the whole the writing is pretty good. The prose has some style, channeling some of the better strains of popular music criticism, with frequent references for the keen reader or listener to catch. Some of my favorite passages spoke to some trends in contemporary classical music, saying some things that I have felt for a while but haven’t really spoken about. I think his criticisms of minimalism and “spiritual minimalism” are spot-on. I do love their music a lot (Reich, Riley, Part, and Gorecki, to name a few), but it’s unsurprising that they are the commercially-successful classical composers. More on that perhaps some other time. 

I realize that I may have seemed a bit too harsh on Alex Ross in a previous post here. It was partially a grad-student approach that meant I had to be contrarian and step back and critique every single little thing, all that jazz. The Rest is Noise is a very good book, and I am by no means telling people not to read it, though it is important to point out the limitations in his perspective. I mostly feared that his book would be taken as definitive and people would uncritically accept everything he said about the European avant-garde’s rejection of the mass audience. It’s easy for us, in democratic and freedom-loving America, to look down on artists who reject the masses with smug elitist condescension. But fin-de-siècle Vienna and the United States a hundred years later are two different worlds, whose artistic cultures have very different ideas on the relationship between the artist and the masses. For someone like Schoenberg, an artistic radical in the most culturally conservative city in Europe, rejecting “the masses” who just want to hear Beethoven over and over again was necessary to preserve the integrity of his art. And he wasn’t alone in this: there were dozens of musicians, painters and writers who shared this perspective, many of whom were Jewish in a deeply anti-semitic society. The American avant-garde, insofar as it exists, is much less combative, pushed to the margins by the “objectivity” of the “free market,” and resigned to obscurity. It’s not that the avant-garde offers a counter-narrative to the mainstream, it’s that there is nothing but the mainstream, and the avant-garde has to survive on paltry scraps. It’s hard to imagine anyone being scandalized by the American avant-garde, since no one is really paying attention. Naked Lunch is probably the last book to really earn any press for obscenity, as with Gravity’s Rainbow, but both those books remain on the margins of American culture. 

Enough on Fear of Music, let’s move on before I get onto even more tangents. 

II

Like Stubbs points out, many people who experience modern art and know the big names probably don’t appreciate it in the same way the supposed art snobs wished they would. Interestingly enough, Zappa makes an interesting parallel here. When he first heard Edgard Varese as a young boy, he didn’t know anything about 20th century modernism, the cultural influences on the music, the techniques and aesthetic trends that influenced Varese’s music: he just thought it sounded interesting. I had very much the same experience as a teenager hearing Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge. Back then I didn’t know what musique concréte was, nor did I know a thing about the summer courses at Darmstadt or what serialism was or how early synthesizers worked. I just thought it sounded unique, unlike anything I had heard before. I also heard Venetian Snares for the first time around that age, which also opened me up to a world of electronic music that I had missed amid my parent’s rock and country records (I’m not linking to it because it’s one of the things I liked at the age that I can’t stand to listen to anymore). What was important for me then was a genuine sense of curiosity, and it was this curiosity that took me from Stockhausen to other music of the era that we now consider the mid-century avant-garde.    

I have no doubt that some people are intimidated by the cottage industry around avant-garde music or contemporary music: you’re telling me I have to read these books before I can understand what’s happening in the music? I didn’t study music in college. The usual solution by people who wish to expand the audience for contemporary music is to offer reading lists, podcasts, youtube educational videos, etc. But I have to wonder if the other way would be more useful. Maybe we should be telling our potential audience: you don’t have to “understand” the music to “appreciate” it. If you like the sounds you are hearing, if you find them interesting, novel, pleasing, strange, engrossing, cathartic, then you like the music. Even the most snobbish aestheticians of music (Adorno, for instance) have some basic, intuitive impulse that draws them towards the music they like; the intellectualizing and philosophical meditation comes later. It is that impulse, that phenomenal (in the Heideggerian or Husserlean sense of the word, “relating to phenomena”) experience that creates our impressions of art, not charts and graphs. Those things can be useful, certainly, but it isn’t the music: music is organized sound, and if you don’t like how the music sounds, no formal diagrams or harmonic schematics are going to convince you otherwise.

I’m not advocating for musical philistinism, nor for an anti-intellectual stance towards music. Trust me, if there’s anyone who over-intellectualizes music, it’s me. I’m just wondering if we should take audiences at their word, rather than trying to convince them to “understand and appreciate” the music in this detached, cold way. It makes the music seem dead, like one is inspecting a fossil in a museum rather than watching a living creature.

One can learn a lot from a rigorous study of popular music (I honestly learned more about harmony from the Beatles, Radiohead and Wayne Shorter than from any theory textbook), and there are lots of popular artists who deserve to be pantheonic, who deserve intensive studies of their music. Like Frank Zappa, who gave us almost a hundred pages in his memoir for a single chapter on his thoughts on music. I have my own list of artists I think are deserving of that stature, and I’m sure others have more to say on the matter than I do. Take Kate Bush for instance, whose music I enjoy and appreciate but I don’t feel deeply in my soul (to make a crude joke about it, because I’m a straight cis man). I can talk about her music with admiration, but I don’t love it the same way others may love her music. Also, does great music need to be validated by some musical intelligentsia, even if that elite class of critics is diverse and comprehensive? Much of the best and most interesting music lives outside the world of respectable, high-brow discourse. How many potential scholars are going to write their PhD on trends in modern hip-hop music such as Atlanta Trap and Soundcloud Rap? And if they do so, will they do it with the mealy-mouthed condescension and bemusement of ethnomusicologists studying this music behind safe glass walls? 

Experience and personal identity clearly plays a role in shaping our musical tastes, and no one should be looked down upon because of that (you are seen, you are heard, you are valid). Hitherto musical criticism and analysis has been extremely myopic about what music it considers important, and that often comes down to this centuries-long vetting process that determines what artists “stand the test of time.” Expanding the breadth of musical criticism is good for everyone: it allows everyone to feel like they have a say in determining what music is important. 

This brings me back to that perennial question I return to often: “the Western Canon.” Should we have a more diverse canon, or do we dispense with the notion altogether? Why not have multiple canons? Doesn’t everybody just make their own individualized, curated canons these days anyway? What is the value of the currently-existing canon to modern society? I don’t know, and I haven’t dug far enough into the discussions of “the canon” outside of freshman year of college to have a nuanced take on that.

These are just some of the things I was thinking about as I was reading The Real Frank Zappa Book. Consider that an endorsement. 

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