Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A synthesiser orchestra of Wagnerian scale

Because On An Overgrown Path is not a slave to the review copy treadmill, my listening and reading is not fixated on new releases*. However, several books that I read this year were new publications. Given Philip Glass' high profile, it is surprising that his autobiography Words Without Music has not received more attention. Glass writes very well, and his syncretic take on art music with its memories of Ravi Shankar and other cross-tradition musicians is refreshing. However, I found the later chapters like much of Glass' later music - too repetitive and predictable to hold my attention. Unlike several other commentators, I found the anthology The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church disappointing. Its attempt to cover all the world's music in one book using different authors is worthy; but, like a taster menu in a Michelin restaurant, it tantalises but frustrates in equal measure. Why an overview of the other classical musics should devote a chapter to European classical music, which is the classical music as opposed to one of the other classical musics, eludes me. It may be comprehensive, but this anthology fails to communicate passion for the other classical musics, and the inclusion of the biographies of contributors as part of the foreword rather than afterword smacks of the new narcissism that pervades music writing. By contrast, the anthology Nick Drake: Remebered for a While edited by Nick's sister Gabriella is a treasure trove that I will keep returning to. And another 2015 highlight for me was the publication of an English translation of Pierre Alain Baud's biography of qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, titled Nusrat: The Voice of Faith.

Golden oldies provided much reading pleasure in 2015. Peter Lavazzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West delivered pleasure and enlightenment beyond measure; if you read only one music book in 2016 make it this one. Two volumes by Earle H. Waugh, The Munshid─źn of Egypt: Their World and Their Song and Memory, Music, and Religion Morocco's Mystical Chanters provided readable but scholarly views on the performing traditions of mystical Islam. Equally illuminating were Global Beat Fusion: The History of the Future of Music by Derek Beres and Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture by Hisham Aidi. A substantial writing commission from the Salzburg Festival immersed me in the Hindu performing arts early in the year; a recent edition of Hindu Music - an anthology edited by Sourindro Mohun Tagore and originally published in 1875 - was a fascinating find, while revisiting Chant and be Happy: the Power of Mantra Meditation was a timely reminder of what music is really about.

But I have saved the best to last. Fathomless Riches by the Reverend Richard Coles was, for me, an unlikely chance find on the shelf of our local library. Richard Coles was one half of the British duo the Communards; they were prominent in the emerging gay scene in the 1980s and had top 40 hits in the UK and US, most notably with the chart-topping Don't Leave Me This Way. But Richard Coles also has serious music credentials including being head chorister at his public school, and in a remarkable change of career direction he was ordained as an Anglican vicar in 2005. He is now a parish priest in Northampton, a presenter on BBC Radio 4, and, inevitably, a Twitter star. Fathomless Riches - see header image - is a no punches pulled autobiographical journey through music and life; unlike so many music writers today, Richard Coles has something pertinent to say and he says it very well. Here he is writing about the Synclavier, a instrument that changed the sound of contemporary music:
Bronski Beat's single 'Why?' was an example of [the Synclavier's] virtues, sounding like a synthesiser orchestra of Wagnerian scale sending in the Valkyries to tackle homophobia.
* All books discussed in this post were bought or borrowed from libraries. The only exception is The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church; sorry about that Boydell & Brewer. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

1 comment:

Pliable said...

It has been pointed out to me, quite correctly, that putting contributor biographies in the foreword is standard practice in multi-author academic anthologies, as in, say, the Cambridge Companion series, and has nothing to do with contemporary music writing per se. So I stand corrected on that; an excess of narcissism elsewhere is making me see it where it does not exist.