Descriptions of musical processes require a leap of faith. The
leap has to be made by both the writer and the reader. And in the
same way that the seeker-after-truth devours the text of the evangelical
tract handed to him in the market place, it will remain just text,
just words, until the leap of faith has been made. Reading or writing
about matters of faith, spirit, religion or art, is easy to ridicule;
the individual confesses their feelings and in that instant they
become vulnerable. They make a commitment to their subject matter
that is fundamentally a declaration of a subjective experience.
This may chime with other people’s experiences, setting up
some resonance of recognition, or it may confront and challenge
a reader who has a fundamentally opposed experience of the same
music. And being honest is always a risky business, since it presupposes
a degree of security of personality. I don’t mind admitting
that I cry when I listen to Mahler … I might even wear it
this as a badge - hey, I’m so responsive to great art that
my body takes over and I cry – but am I so ready to admit
similar feelings about Lloyd-Webber? More to the point, how do I
feel about somebody else who wishes to lay themselves bare about
their reaction to absolutely ordinary music? Rudyard Kipling recognised
the value of commonplace feelings. I suspect that the unpopularity
of Kipling in the latter half of the twentieth century is only partly
to do with his jingoism. It may also be a reaction by the custodians
of the high-art canon to his constant elevation of the ordinary
and popular. Kipling’s army poetry in particular is populated
with servants, semi-literate riflemen and humble privates and they
express themselves in the ordinary vernacular. The ‘Song of
Banjo’ fancifully extends his cast of characters to include
a banjo – and instrument which, like the squeezebox or the
mouth-organ has always been unashamed of its humble origins.
And the tunes that mean so much to you alone -
Common tunes that make you choke and blow your nose,
Vulgar tunes that bring the laugh that brings the groan -
I can rip your very heartstrings out with those;
(Kipling: The Song of the Banjo, 1899)
Most descriptions of music rely on the reader having had the same
experience as the writer. In this way the ‘chime’, or
resonance referred to above can be set up. Part of the agony of
academic analysis is that it tries to pin down the object under
scrutiny (the music) with quasi-scientific accuracy. There’s
a lovely scene in one of the old Doctor in the… movies.
Leslie Phillips and some jolly interns have moved into a digs where
they find a piano. Now, for the joke to work, you have to realise
that these are awfully bright chaps from the best schools with impeccable
academic backgrounds. Leslie Phillips is seated at the piano, and
from my memory, says something like this: ‘Let’s have
one bar of the tonic, one of the subdominant seventh, and then two
more of the tonic … followed by two on the subdominant and
a couple more on the tonic. Then one bar of the dominant, one of
the subdominant and a couple more on the tonic to finish’.
All this gobbledygook is meant to leave the audience non-plussed,
until they hear the music, which is a perfectly straightforward
12 bar blues. At the time when the film was released, the 12 bar
formula was familiar from countless rock recordings. Everybody knows
it; we understand the joke. These medics are academic coves, and
like academics the world over, they talk a different language to
us mere mortals.
But the problem of precise and scientific description is not necessary
if the writer’s purpose is to set off in the mind of the reader
that internal juke-box that plays a private and internal soundtrack
to our everyday lives. I’ve got a tune going around my head,
and it’s been there all day, and I cannot get rid of it. In
order for you to hear the same music as me, I don’t have to
describe it, I merely need to name it, and then hope that our shared
memory of the piece allows your internal juke-box to play the same
tune as mine. Paul Morley writes in Words and Music: A History
of Pop in the Shape of a City …
This doesn’t explain exactly what ['Can’t
Get You Out of My Head'] sounds like. … It doesn’t matter
so much that I cannot really describe what the Kylie Minogue song
sounds like, even though that’s meant to be my job, because
I really can take it for granted that you’ve heard it. Whatever
I say about it confirms your own sense of what the song sounds like.
Sometimes I will write something you agree with, sometimes something
you don’t agree with, but mostly you will think, Yes, he is
talking about the song I know. I just have to go ‘La la la,
la, la, la …’ and you will be in the song, and the song
will be in you.
(Morley: 2003, p32)
Morley takes a leap of faith in last phrase of the extract. “…
and you will be in the song, and the song will be in you”.
The sense that the song has a location inside the self must be a
universal human phenomenon. And yet in a contradictory way, it also
exists out there. We can see Kylie performing, we can hear the loudspeakers,
we can identify sources of sound. There appears to be two simultaneous
realities. First, there’s the objective reality of sound,
music and performance, and then there’s the fleeting, anarchic
internal reality of sensation and memory. When we write about music,
are we writing about the objective reality of the music, or are
we attempting to articulate our subjective experience of it? The
academic musical analyst tries to detach music from its cultural
and personal baggage. The poet tries to account for the human response
to music, and may occasionally compare this to the physical stimulus
that precipitated the feeling or sensation. Musicologists from the
1960s onward have been transfixed by the concept of meaning in music,
from the absolutism of Deryck Cooke, who in 1959 in The Language
of Music argued that particular phrases and intervals were
loaded with emotional meaning, to the inclusive semiotics of Philip
Tagg. But the problem for any scientific approach is that we cannot
compare our subjective experiences. How do I know that my experience
of Kylie Minogue in any way compares to yours? The late Frank Muir
was asked on a radio quiz show, ‘What does this music make
you think of?’ to which his reply was ‘The brine baths
at Harrogate.’ And why not?
There is a point of view that all discussion of music is unprofitable.
In this extract from Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Herr Haller
tries to get his acquaintance to talk about music.
‘Several times I have attempted to talk about
music with you. It would have interested me to know your thoughts
and opinions, whether they contradicted mine or not, but you have
disdained to make me even the barest reply.’
He gave me a most amiable smile and this time a reply was accorded
‘Well,’ he said with equanimity, ‘you see, in
my opinion there is no point at all in talking about music. I never
talk about music. What reply, then, was I to make to your very able
and just remarks? You were perfectly right in all you said. But
you see, I am a musician, not a professor, and I don’t believe
that, as regards music, there is the least point in being right,
on having good taste and education and all that.’
‘Indeed. Then what does it depend on?’
‘On making music, Herr Haller, on making music as well and
as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.
That is the point Monsieur. Though I carried the complete works
of Bach and Haydn in my head and could say the cleverest of things
about them, not a soul would be the better for it. (Hesse: 1951)
Doesn’t Hesse’s last sentence – ‘Though
I carried the complete works of Bach and Haydn in my head and could
say the cleverest of things about them, not a soul would be the
better for it.’ – seriously challenge the university
analyst? Is it true?
Sometimes the view expressed by Haller’s acquaintance is
adopted by those who subscribe to the idea that music is in some
way equivalent to a spoken language, capable of specific communicable
meaning. The argument goes: ‘Why describe the musical processes,
when the instruments themselves can do the talking?’ In the
following quotations, Andre Dubus III and then James Baldwin unambiguously
offer English translations of musical phrases.
He took his harmonica from the bedside table, but instead of playing
do re mi he went right in with a throat constricted maw wah wah.
When his lungs were full, he blew air out into the next hole up,
this time opening and closing his free hand until he heard a Ryder
sound, but it was him, Leo, making fo wah, fo wah, fo wah. He did
it again. For what, for what, it sounded like. He did it three times.
On the fourth, when his lungs were empty, he moved his pursed lips
over the next higher note, sucking in this time, moving his hand
and closing up the throat. He heard See you, you, you, you. He slid
back and forth between the two notes, going long on one, short on
the other, then switching. See you, see you, see you,
Fo wah, fo wah, wah … (Dubus: 1993, p35)
The music was loud and empty, no one was doing anything at all,
and it was being hurled at the crowd like a malediction in which
even those who hated most deeply any longer believed. They knew
that no one heard, that bloodless people cannot be made to bleed.
So they blew what everyone had heard before, they reassured everyone
that nothing terrible was happening, and the people at the tables
found it pleasant to shout over this stunning corroboration and
the people at the bar, under cover of the noise they could scarcely
have lived without, pursued whatever it was that they were after.
[ … ] He was a kid of the same age as Rufus … but somewhere
along the line he has discovered he could say it with the saxophone.
He had a lot to say. He stood there , wide-legged, humping the air,
filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd
years, and screaming through the horn. Do you love me? Do you love
me? Do you love me? And again Do you love me? Do you love me? […]
The men on the stand stayed with him, cool and at a little distance,
adding and questioning and corroborating, holding it down as well
as they could with an ironical self-mockery; but each man knew that
the boy was blowing for every one of them. (Baldwin: 1962, p18,19)
There’s an element of onomatopoeia about these passages.
Although Dubus and Baldwin exercise some licence when interpreting
the harmonica and saxophone, it doesn’t seem unreasonable
to suggest that the instruments present us with stylised speech,
or a kind of virtual discourse. The rise and fall of the music correspond
to the dynamics of speech, and the inflections and mannerisms of
the instruments can be thought of as equivalent to the spoken utterance.
The authors, in their ‘all-seeing, all-knowing’ position
tell us that the music has a certain meaning, and we accept it in
the same way that we accept other elements within a story. Less
convincing, however, are situations where an author tries to weld
a complicated set of meanings onto the music in ways which don’t
apparently relate to the substance of the music itself. In the extract
below from Trumpet, Jackie Kay, Guardian Fiction
Prize winner of 1998, plays fast and loose with the meaning of the
music. Why does this fail to convince me? Well, because I’ve
played with lots of jazz musicians, and I’ve talked about
what goes through the mind when improvising, and it doesn’t
generally resemble anything like this:
Chokes his trumpet. He is naked. This is naked jazz. O-bop-she-bam.
Never lying. Telling it like it is. […] The place down there:
it forces him to witness his own death. He watches open-mouthed
the card he’s going to be dealt. He watches himself in flashback.[…]
He goes further back till he’s neck in neck with his own birth.
There’s the midwife, Kathleen (His mother said he was always
going to be Kathleen or Josephine.) Kathleen, with her big thick
midwife’s hands. The hands of a butcher. Fleshy and too soft.
Kathleen pulling the slippery powdery baby out and up into the air.
The cord wound right round. Right around the baby’s neck.
Kathleen has to unhook the wee girl first before she can cut the
cord. ‘A lucky, lucky girl,’ she says to the mother.
He gulps on the trumpet. The music has no breath, no air. Small
ghost notes sob from the trumpet. […] The trumpet takes him
back top the blue birth. In the music at the bottom the cord starts
(Kay: 1998, p132)
What’s wrong with this? Well, in my view, Jackie Kay is much
too ambitious in what she wants to accomplish, and has suggested
a literal sub-text to the music which is utterly specific and very
sophisticated … but there are no musical tags on which to
hang this meaning, no whoops and gasps that could correspond to
elements in her narrative.
The idea that music represents a more fundamental plane of reference
for our lives crops up in many guises. Destiny, fate, or a kind
of Ur-text for existence itself. EL Doctorow explores this idea
in this extract from Ragtime…
The musician turned again to the keyboard. 'Wall Street Rag,' he
said. Composed by the great Scott Joplin. He began to play. Ill-tuned
or not the Aeolian had never made such sounds. Small clear chords
hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There
seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated
by the music.
(Doctorow: 1975, p121)
And this from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz…
Why certain tonal colours, subtleties of key and
syncopation can take such a hold on the mind is something that an
entirely unmusical person like myself can never understand, said
Austerlitz, but today, looking back, it seems to me as if the mystery
which touched me at the time was summed up in the image of the snow-white
goose standing motionless and steadfast among the musicians as long
as they played. Neck craning forward slightly, pale eyelids slightly
lowered, it listened there in the tent beneath that shimmering firmament
of painted stars until the last notes had died away, as if it knew
its own future and the fate of its present companions.
(Sebald: 2001, p384)
These ideas are closely linked. Doctorow suggests that the music
delineated the possibilities of life, and Sebald suggests that the
music itself is somehow sentient, omniscient and that it in some
way encodes our destinies. So if we imagine, for a moment, the mythical
Book of Life, in which all our pasts, presents and futures are written,
we might discover that some of the cantos are in fact set to music.
According to Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet,
Satchmo’s trumpet was familiar with the slings and arrows
of outrageous fortune.
Vina grows tense, resists the moving of the ring. No, she will
not marry him. She refuses, turns him down flat […]. ‘You
are the only man I will ever love’, she promises Ormus. ‘But
do you seriously suppose you’re the only guy I will ever fuck?’
(A trumpet – it’s definitely Satchmo – comes blaring
in. Armstrong’s instrument is the golden horn of experience,
the trump of worldly wisdom. It laughs –wuah, wuah –
at the worst life throws up. It’s heard it all before.)
(Rushdie: 1999, p177-8)
Rushdie’s project is most ambitious. In some ways The
Ground Beneath Her Feet can be thought of as the Orpheus myth
of the contemporary age. He weaves a rich and colourful tapestry
of ideas, so that the reader needs perspective and distance to allow
the main images to crystallise, and time to allow the most important
ideas to remain after the clamour and buzz of the subtext has subsided.
He poses the idea that pop is an ever-present undercurrent in human
affairs, present before and after its adoption by humanity. Pop
as an eternal truth. This is a new idea, and confronts head-on the
other notion that pop is ephemeral and unsuited to grand or profound
expressions. And as this idea is developed we see his central character
Ormus discovering pop rather in the way that scientists discover
a natural truth; something that is always there, waiting to be discovered,
rather than existing as a by-product of the human creative urge.
Elvis didn’t invent ‘Heartbreak Hotel’; he was
merely the first person to sing it. Ormus, Rushdie’s hero,
has the knack of prophecy; he uncovers pop often well before history
would have us believe that it first appeared. There’s a lovely
pre-echo of Paul Simon’s lyrics…
So does this voice, speaking in unexplained personal
references, but somehow including the listener in its private world.
A girl lies down in the darkness, she ask why am I right on the
floor, why am I right on the floor here, when the rest of my life
is so wrong. I need a carnival costume, I want my day in the sunlight,
don’t want to be a black cat in a back catalogue.
(Rushdie: ibid., p319-9)
In the following list from Rushdie, a gauntlet is thrown down for
a whole army of reception theorists. This should keep them very
… the sexiness of the Cuban horns, the mind-bending
patterns of the Brazilian drums, the Chilean woodwinds moaning like
the winds of oppression, the African male voice choruses like trees
swaying in freedom’s breeze, the grand old ladies of Algerian
music with their yearning squawks and ululations, the holy passion
of the Pakistani qawwals.
(Rushdie: ibid., p416)
Rushdie implicitly suggests that music lies outside of normal reason,
by drawing up a list of opposing pairs. The departure from the sensible
rationalism of everyday speech into mysticism is triggered by the
fact that he uses each poetic pair to nominate a kind of impossibility,
like a Möbius strip or a Max Escher drawing.
Where reason and light meet madness and darkness,
where science meets art and peace meets battle: where the adult
meets the child, where life faces death and scorns it, make your
(Rushdie: ibid., p431)
What do we understand from this list? We can take away with us
the notion that music doesn’t conform to the pragmatism of
Newtonian physics, neither does it feel restricted by Euclidean
geometry, politics or the cultural logic of society. By describing
music in the way that he does, Rushdie preserves for us something
of its anarchy, paradox and spirituality, qualities which we feel
are essential in music, but which are outside of the remit of the
university analyst, whose approach tends to be reductive and atomising.
The idea that music represents something of God is common, both
in literature and the wider community. (Indeed, music has had a
curious relationship with organised faith throughout history; at
one point banned as seditious, and at another exalted as representing
divine discourse itself.) Jack Kerouac’s famous romp across
America, On the Road contains many vivid descriptions of
jazz musicians in the act of creation. I can’t help feeling
slightly uncomfortable with some of his descriptions of black musicians
where, one feels, he is as impressed with the idea of blackness
as a force that might subvert middle-class white America as with
the music. However, he is even-handed enough to write reverentially
about the white jazzmen that he meets up with in his odyssey through
the dives New York.
He went back to his dark corner, old God Shearing,
and the boys said, “There ain’t nothin’ left after
But the slender leader frowned. “Let’s blow anyway.”
Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little
further – it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after
Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and
twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new
suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the
world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they
lost it, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed,
they moaned- and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go go
(Kerouac: 1955, p241)
In my own experience of playing jazz, this seems to sum up the
psychological process of spontaneous creation in a believable way.
Finding tunes, losing them, fumbling around for clarity in the middle
of an improvised solo … all these things I recognise from
every Friday night gig, and despite the fact that the musicians
are frequently unsure of the constraints and protocols of any particular
improvisation, the effect on the audience is often positive, exciting
and transcendental. Both sides of the transaction are acknowledged
by Kerouac; whilst the musicians writhe, and twist, lose the tune
and find it again, Dean is sweating at the table, urging them to
go, go, go.
Nobody has difficulty recognising that jazz, with its sweat, energy
and risk, is properly human. However there are many detractors from
the art of the DJ. Jeff Noon (File under SciFi/Manchester) in his
cult favourite Vurt, presents us with his hero as DJ making
similarly divine claims for music.
Booth door opens and that ungodly twosome, that pair
of reprobates fall in the DJ box, and I just couldn’t help
it, my weak heart was full of love for them. A kind of bruised love,
truth be known.
‘Scribble!’ The Beetle drooled.
‘Okay, Beetle,’ I said. ‘The name’s Ink
‘Aye. I heard that.’ His eyes were triple glazed. ‘Long
time, my man.’
I was holding back the feelings, on purpose, just to spite him,
just to build my dreams up, just to break even.
Just to break even. Because sometimes you’ve got to do the
best you can, in order to come out smiling, just by a little bit.
‘Scribble, baby, you’ve got your posse with you!’
‘I’m busy, Bee,’ I answered. And I was, working
the decks like a pilgrim, searching for God. That’s the god
of Limbic. The god of music, hidden inside the beats.
(Noon: 1993, 121-124)
The last line of Jeff Noon’s reminded me of a passage in
John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm and Sensibility
where, in a particular piece of drum music, a silent beat was described
as ‘God’s Beat’. And again, the mystical effect
of missing the first beat of the bar in dub reggae, that most minimal
and cerebral of dance music formulas, has often struck me as perversely
knowing. There’s something Protestant about both Kerouac’s
jazzers and Vurt’s DJ; both are engaged in hard work
in their questing for God. It was the lack of this quality in Mozart,
you will remember, that so enraged Salieri, and the fact that Salieri
deserved divine reward for his labours, but apparently Mozart received
it plentifully without expending much effort. Dorothy Baker wrote
a rather fawning novel called Young Man With a Horn in
1938. It is a hardly-concealed biography of Bix Beiderbecke, and
subscribes to the commonly held view that musical talent is a gift
from God, and that greatness cannot be approached by mere mortals
who haven’t been gifted in this way. In its attempt to present
us with the gritty truths about talent she identifies the unfashionable
idea that most of us, however hard we work, cannot reach Parnassus.
Yes Sir. He taught him how. He showed him the way.
‘I guess that’s damned near true,’ Rick said.
And Smoke said come off it, nobody could ever teach him nothing.
What he played last night he couldn’t have learned off no
guy, not even Hazard. It’s something a man’s got to
put in by himself, when it’s like that. You don’t learn
it, you make it.
(Baker: 1938, p166)
Music can act as the glue that holds together the social fabric.
More particularly, musicians learn from their parents, and the abstract
knowledge about music is handed down through the generations. Andre
Dubus III, in his novel Bluesman, has his hero the only
child of a guitar playing father, a free-spirit who through his
playing represents something indomitable and masculine. Mikael Niemi,
a contemporary Swedish author whose best-selling novel Popular
Music is northern Sweden’s answer to Roddy Doyle’s
The Commitments, introduces us to Holgeri, a boy who
is something of a social misfit and a genius guitarist.
Holgeri came from Kihlanki, and we used to chat while he was waiting
for the school bus. We usually talked about music. I wondered how
he’d learnt to play the guitar, and he said it was his dad.
His dad had been dead for several years, and Holgeri never wanted
to say exactly what happened. What he remembered from his childhood
was sitting on his dad’s knee while he played traditional
Liikavaara tunes, singing quietly in the euphoric stage of intoxication;
how he would wipe the spit from his moustache, which he used to
trim with nail scissors, and then slip his son a throat pastille.
When his father died, his guitar was left hanging from its hook.
Holgeri had taken it down, started fingering the strings and imagined
he could hear his father’s voice, coming from somewhere in
the depths of the forests where he now was.
Precisely the same idea is presented in Tim Bowler’s Starseeker,
a teenage novel in which the protagonist-as-musician is haunted
by the spectre of his dead father, and in some way achieves a kind
of salvation through music in order to become socially integrated.
Learning from your father, from Leopold to Wolfgang, from Nat to
Natalie, from Frank to Nancy is a strong thread in our social weave,
and seems to be more at home in popular and vernacular musical forms
than in the modern concert hall, where the credibility comes with
individualism and iconoclasm.
The principal difference between the author-as-storyteller and
the academic-as-musical-commentator, is in the author’s skill
in description of music. Sometimes this is in the choice of a telling
metaphor, or an apt comparison which in a poetic way sheds more
light on its subject than tortuously exacting prose. Descriptions
of music in which the author feels no need to resort to a technical
musical vocabulary, can be refreshing and enlightening, and to the
academic quite challenging. Mark Hudson’s novel The Music
in my Head is about a wholly unpleasant music producer who
journeys to the fictional country of Tekrur (for which read Dakar)
to discover African artists that he can sign up. His many descriptions
of African music in the novel make it a joy to read.
So while I wasn’t expecting that much when we were unloading
the gear into this studio in Tottenham, as soon as they started
playing, it was like being in a house that was continually in the
process of collapsing, but somehow just staying up – thrilling
but definitely frightening. The bumping, rusting vibrato of the
harp, the spinning tumbling syncopations of the balafong, diving
off on apparently random trajectories.
(Hudson: 1999, p201)
Contrary to popular belief, African rhythm sections are not necessarily
‘tight’ in the western ‘quantised’ understanding
of the term. There are all sorts of pushes and pulls in the rhythm
of the music, but because the notion of the beat behind the music
is shared in common between all of the players, it won’t stray
too far away from the main pulse, the heartbeat of the music. To
western ears, there is, perhaps, a sense of risk and danger associated
with this looseness. Marks Hudson’s idea of a house ‘continually
in the process of collapsing, but somehow just staying up …’
is inspired. Another example from Doctorow’s Ragtime
has this image of light which touches areas in space. The idea of
music as light, or as flowers that open remind us of Disney’s
Fantasia and his sometimes rather-too-literal attempts
to translate musical perceptions into concrete visual images.
The pianist sat stiffly at the keyboard, his long dark hands with
their pink nails seemingly with no effort producing the clusters
of syncopating chords and the thumping octaves. This was a most
composition, a vigorous music that roused the senses and never stood
still a moment. The boy perceived it as light touching various places
in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room
made to glow with its own being.
(Doctorow: ibid., p121)
…and Mark Hudson again …
Then the sax comes back in, flooding the track with its luminous
colours, and then, just when you think your cup is running over,
the kora […] starts to pick its way up out of the mix, the
myriad notes tinkling and tumbling like raindrops dancing in a beam
of golden sunlight as they give a bouncing syncopated reinforcement
to the melodic line
(Hudson: ibid., p96))
In Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx describes the process
of tuning the accordion. We are reminded of the ‘groan’
of the hinges, the ‘rattle of dice’ which describes
the clatter of the hinges. For me the most telling metaphor is the
way she describes the notes of the accordion: ‘it seemed the
tooth that bit was hollowed with pain’. It eludes me absolutely
to describe exactly why the notes of an accordion should be so described,
but somewhere in our unconscious mind, the metallic reeds of an
accordion set up an association with slivers of metal, of pain perhaps,
and the nasal quality of the sound which could signify crying ….
He set the fourths and then the fifths with the tuning fork and
his naked ear, catching an aching but pleasurable dissonance. His
sense of pitch was sure, he heard harmonies in the groan of hinges.
The button action was quick, the subtle clacking like the rattle
of dice in a gambler’s hand. From a distance the voice of
the instrument sounded hoarse and crying, reminding listeners of
the brutalities of love, of various hungers. The notes fell, biting
and sharp; it seemed the tooth that bit was hollowed with pain.
Much of the music of our western civilisation is concerned with
process, with journeys, with descents and ascents. It is music which
is mirrored in our classical poetry and mythology. It seems to me
that with this heritage, it is a culpable oversight to reduce it
to the sum of its components. There is an enormous contrast with
the candour and honesty of literature and the world of the academic
musician. The 20th century’s love-affair with science, mathematics
and the idea of quantifiable progress has made commentators shy
of facing these grand narratives of western thought. These are the
roots of our poetic and musical impulses, and to ignore them is
to miss the point of music. We can comment on the observable ‘facts’
in music … whether there is a canon, whether the music starts
in a major or minor key, and what instrument is playing, but as
soon as we wish to probe more deeply we need to embrace the irrational.
Indeed, music is beyond intellect, and that has been a stumblingblock
for our university-led educational ideology. It seems to me that
there has been a lack of courage, a failure of nerve at the point
when it became necessary to confront the poetic and irrational nature
of our subconscious within the culture of music education with the
result that university analysis is irrelevant to everyday. Its language
is remote and technical, sometimes preoccupied with the observable
and quantifiable aspects of music. Yet outside of this ivory tower,
there is an open recognition of the spiritual and poetic nature
Neither psycho-analysis nor deconstruction nor post-modernism have
had anything revelatory to say of music. This is crucial, These
language-games of subversive decipherment, of suspicion in the wake
of Nietzsche and Freud, are virtually impotent before music. They
remain arrogantly trapped within the language-sphere which they
claim to relativise or unravel. Why should we take them seriously
on the philosophic, on the human level?
Baker, Dorothy 1938 Young Man With A Horn (Cleveland,
Ohio: World Publishing Company)
Baldwin, James 1963 Another Country (UK: Michael Joseph)
Bowler, Tim 2002 Starseeker (OUP)
Doctorow, EL 1976 Ragtime (London: MacMillan)
Dubus III, Andre 2001 Bluesman (London: Heinemann)
Hesse, Hermann 1927 Steppenwolf (Germany: S Fischer Verlag
Hudson, Mark 1998 The Music In My Head (London: Jonanthan
Kay, Jackie 1998 Trumpet (London: Picador)
Kerouac, Jack 1958 On The Road (USA: Viking)
Morley, Paul 2003 Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape
of a City (London: Bloomsbury)
Niemi, Mikael 2000 Popular Music (Sweden: Norstedts Förlag:
Trans. Laurie Thompson 2003 Flamingo)
Noon, Jeff 1993 Vurt (Ringpull Press)
Proulx, Annie 1996 Accordion Crimes (NY:Simon&Schuster)
Rushdie, Salman 1999 The Ground Beneath Her Feet (London:
Sebald, WG 2001 Austerlitz (London: Penguin)
Steiner, George 1997 An Examined Life (London: Weidenfeld