Listening to music can be an all-encompassing experience, like being buoyed in a room comprised entirely of pitch, rhythm and harmony. There’s an architectural element too in written compositions, with notes building on one another in growing edifices of lines, curves and dots. The new Frank Gehry-designed business school at Sydney’s University of Technology, with its brickwork which in places resembles the depressed keys of a piano pressed out into a mould, suggests the same inhabitation of space – musical and yet solid.
The life and work of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis demonstrate a similar level of fluid exchange. A resistance fighter against both the German occupation during the Second World War, and the British restoration of the Greek monarchy post-war, Xenakis lost his left eye to a shell fired from an English tank. After fleeing to Paris, he studied architecture with Le Corbusier, and later carried this strong interest in structural coherence over to his work as a composer. Xenakis’ initial interest in the melodic rawness of Greek folk music was soon supplanted by an approach which saw him compose on architectural graph paper. This YouTube video, which traverses the composer’s idiosyncratic notation as his nine-minute piece ‘Metastasis’ plays, demonstrates Xenakis’ conception of music as a physical form. His compositional style has a dense and still natural effect, like a massive ice sheet grinding against the land beneath, yielding up slow groans and punctuating cracks.
Xenakis appears in Andrew Ford’s newly published consideration of contemporary composition, Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive. He is not a dominant figure, but he is an emblematic one. Like Xenakis, Ford’s focus is close, though he has no difficulty in communicating vastness. Ford describes music’s primary initial concern with the visceral – the raw, the folkloric, the movement of the body. This is cooked up with increasing complexity, until increasing alienation enables its renewal through simplification. From romanticism to prog-rock to punk, there is a repeating cycle of revolt against a form grown too elaborate, culminating in a return to something simpler.
Ford doesn’t posit this cycle as an all-or-nothing opposition; rather, ‘all music is a synthesis of intellectual design and bodily urge’. Nowhere is this more evident than in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Its 1913 Paris premiere prompted a riot, and even today many ears are challenged by what the New Yorker’s music critic described as its ‘glittering menace’. Yet Stravinsky buried many melodic elements from Russian and Lithuanian folk melodies into his great disruptive work, kicking against the self-satisfied Belle Epoch to better deliver the grit of the elemental.
Grit and texture are an abiding interest of the six living composers Ford interviews in alternate chapters throughout Earth Dances: Australian Liza Lim, Americans Martin Bresnick and Pauline Oilveros, Brits Richard Barrett and Brian Eno, and Swede Karin Rehnqvist. Each composer’s work implicitly carries Ford’s investigation of the raw and the cooked, adding their own flavours, which Ford in turn uses to bolster his analysis. Lim uses her South-East Asian heritage, full of things ‘forgotten and half-remembered’, to explore the expressive states of sensuality and violence. Rehnqvist’s work incorporates kulning, a herding call used by women in northern Scandinavia to call in stock. By contrast, Barrett uses non-western instruments as a way of escaping his ‘mother-tongue’ – the set of western compositional conventions that ceased to surprise some time ago.
The book’s only jarring notes are when Ford turns his focus to rock music. In his recounting of the familiar history of rock – from basic fifties rock n roll, to the increasing experimentation of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and on to the near-symphonic misjudgements of prog-rock which were soon swept aside by the thrashing rawness of punk – he concludes with US three-piece Violent Femmes. An energetic and popular live act whose number of really good songs wouldn’t trouble all the fingers of one hand, Violent Femmes’ place in that history is highly debatable. More seriously, an otherwise compelling chapter on voice ends on the Pussy Riot phenomenon, which while fascinating politically is of little consequence musically.
These quibbles aside, Earth Dances is a vivid and rarely less than astute history of the debt modern music simultaneously owes to the inheritances of tradition, and the texture of dissonance.