on music

27 March 2013

Sound and its discontents through history
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy (Profile)

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.
Yesterday’s Google Doodle was a playable Moog synthesizer to celebrate what would have been the 78th birthday of its inventor, Dr Robert Moog. Below is a 1998 article on his Minimoog from my Guardian column about music technology, “Top Gear”.

Moog is such an evocative name — the “moo” of placid, bovine friendliness, darkly laced with the stylised, ultramodern violence of “Droog” — that it’s hard to believe Bob Moog, inventor of the synthesizer, was actually christened thus. And in one way, indeed, his hideously successful progeny have rendered him the phonetic impostor: his surname is pronounced to rhyme with “vogue”, but a Moog synthesizer sounds resolutely like a cow. Continued →

5 January 2009

The Triumph of Music: Composers, musicians and their audiences, 1700 to the present, by Tim Blanning (Allen Lane)

What is the difference between Mozart and Sir Elton John? Of the many possible answers that might suggest themselves, the one that interests historian Tim Blanning is the gulf in their social status during their respective lifetimes. Mozart, a hired hand of the archbishop of Salzburg, was seated with the valets and cooks at dinner. Sir Elton, on the other hand, is massively rich and hobnobs with the royal family. The process by which musicians climbed the respectability ladder — from servants to superstars — is the subject of this fascinating book. Continued →

17 May 2008

The Pirate’s Dilemma,
by Matt Mason
(Allen Lane)

One couldn’t wish for a more colourful circus of corporate stupidity and vindictiveness than the public actions of the major record labels over the past decade. They have secretly installed spyware on people’s computers and sued American college students; last month, one label filed a US court claim that throwing their promotional CDs in the bin constituted a violation of copyright. At the same time, they have been demanding a tax on iPods, the proceeds from which would flow directly into their pockets, and firing the A&R staff upon whom their future depends. None of this, of course, is meant to protect the interests of musicians, only of their executive leeches.

It is a farcical ongoing case study in how not to respond to what former pirate-radio DJ Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”. Despite some special pleading in the introduction, he really means “the pirate dilemma”: the pirates themselves are not mulling much over ethical quandaries, but they are forcing everyone else to figure out how to live with them. Continued →

21 March 2008

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross (4th Estate)

What is a composer? Is it someone who invents music from nothing, or someone who seeks inspiration in mathematical procedures, folk music, or birdsong? Is it someone who imagines a situation in which noise could be interpreted as music, and makes that situation happen? Or someone who takes other musics and mashes them up through loudspeakers? Is a composer a person who stands colossus-like outside the times, tuned in to the eternal spheres, or someone messily implicated in history as it happens? Does public acclaim mean the composer is a successful communicator, or a sellout? Is a composer an artist, a celebrity, a monk or a prankster?

In a sense, the history of 20th-century “classical music” (and we will be coming back to those scare quotes), as told in Alex Ross’s magnificent book, is also a history of answers to those questions, of composers wearing all the above hats and more, of a grand search, unconcluded, for answers to the riddle of what composition really is. Continued →

3 November 2007

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks (Picador)

It is a remarkable fact that if I merely type “the Mission: Impossible theme tune” or “Beethoven’s Fifth”, you will probably start humming to yourself. We take it for granted, but how is it possible? What is going on in our brains? Oliver Sacks, the neurologist author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, here devotes a book to the cognitive miracles of music. “It really is a very odd business,” he muses, “that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

Sacks’s deeply warm and sympathetic study is about pathologies of musical response and what they might teach us about the “normal” faculty of music. It reports on fascinating new findings from anatomy — a musician’s brain is easily distinguishable on a scan from those of others; and the passage from ear to brain is not a one-way conduit but works both ways, the brain being able to tune the ears, as it were. But mostly Musicophilia is about the more mysterious, and currently inexplicable, ways in which music affects the brain, for good or ill. Continued →

19 May 2007

Prince: A Thief in the Temple, by Brian Morton (Canongate)


Prince is the black Bob Dylan. Both men are from Minnesota; both have had some of their biggest hits through performances of their songs by others (in Prince’s case: “Manic Monday” by the Bangles; “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor); both are very bad but somehow weirdly compelling film actors; both reserve the right on occasion to explore the limits of repetition (Dylan’s interminable blues jams, Prince’s interminable funk jams); and both are massively prolific and inventive musicians. Both are, to use the word with due care, geniuses.

The half-time show at this year’s SuperBowl saw Prince, in peach shirt and powder-blue suit on a giant neon-lit stage in the shape of his celebrated bi-gendered phallic symbol, a black chiffon headscarf offering his hairdo little protection against driving rain, effortlessly straddle rock epochs. He segued from “All Along the Watchtower” (by Dylan out of Hendrix) into “Best of You”, by the Foo Fighters, many of whose fans weren’t even alive when Prince first lit up the charts. The choice of covers might have been a deliberate historical framing device to set off the climactic number: “Purple Rain”, that cavernous masterpiece, with one of the most heart-wrenching applications ever conceived of the repeated riff over changing chords in a guitar solo. Continued →

20 January 2007

Hitchcock’s Music, by Jack Sullivan (Yale)

The most famous moment of film music in history was nearly mute. Beginning post-production on Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock instructed his composer, Bernard Herrmann: “Do what you like, but only one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music.” Herrmann mused, and scored the scene anyway. After seeing it with music, Hitchcock changed his mind, responding imperturbably to Herrmann’s reminder of his original instruction: “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” Hitchcock, who had been so pessimistic about Psycho‘s prospects that he was considering cutting it up for television, now knew he had something special on his hands. Continued →