Fear of Music: Is Experimental Music an Institution, or Institutionalizable?

You could hardly accuse David Stubbs of being afraid of music. Since his student days as one of the principals of the esteemed Monitor fanzine, Stubbs has engaged with an impressive breadth of artists and genres from The Cocteau Twins to Eminem in an authorial style ranging from that of the workmanlike music journo biographer to his humorous Mr Agreeable persona (who is anything but). His latest book, however, eschews many of the trappings of music journalism for an approach which is as much concerned with art history as it is with music criticism per se. Fear of Music: Why People get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen is very clearly a personal work for Stubbs, his attempt as an aficionado of avant-garde music to come to terms with its enduring unpopularity. The book’s premise, clearly stated in its subtitle, is that “modern” (i.e., 20th- and 21st-century) visual art enjoys a comparative wealth of patronage and popular engagement next to experimental music from the same period, despite the fact that both disciplines are motivated by similar (in some cases, identical) concerns. Although it never quite fully answers its foundational question, Fear of Music does provide the necessary background for interested readers to formulate their own answers while at the same time raising interesting questions about the relationship of the arts across disciplines.

In many ways, Fear of Music is best read as a companion or response to Alex Ross’s surprise bestselling overview of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise. Where Ross is disciplinary and historical, seeking to carefully elucidate the circumstances and rationale by which compositional music turned away from the heights of harmonic convergence and towards a variety of new organizational and even “non-organizational” aleatory systems over the course of the last century, Stubbs explores the relationship between the disciplines of non-representational art and experimental music, comparing their paths through the avant-garde over the past hundred years. Fear of Music thus gives us a highly selective and personal history of the avant-garde, with special attention to the moments of synchronicity between music and visual art, such as Wasilly Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg’s aborted correspondence, the Fluxus movement’s relationship to both popular and experimental music through figures like Yoko Ono and Tony Conrad, and rock group/”media terrorist” foundation the KLF’s assault on the 1990s British art scene. In doing so, Stubbs repeatedly contends that such musical figures are not taken seriously, or are somehow considered “crazy” in a way that their visual counterparts are not by a public with no interest in considering the well-founded rationale upon which their works are based.  

This problematic, while undoubtedly accurate at times, is not without, well, its own problems, as there are obviously other reasons aside from perceived insanity that might explain the general public’s aversion. Firstly, there is the issue of the qualitative difference between the media deployed in each discipline. Of primary importance, of course, is the temporality of their methods of reception: to appreciate a work of music it must be heard diachronically, that is to say in a linear fashion where one is a more-or-less captive audience for the duration of the piece. Visual art, however, can be experienced synchronically, with viewers free to spend hours in front of a piece in deep contemplation or, alternately, mere minutes or even seconds before (in a museum setting) flitting off to the next piece. Even granting the rather large distinction between quality appreciation time and a tourst-style museum blitz, the fact remains that a casual patron could easily experience the length and breadth of the Tate Modern’s offerings over the duration of a handful of symphonies. This is a problem, of course, that not only music but cinema and other diachronic media face.


Another qualitative difference between music and visual art is the physicality of their reception; in extreme circumstances, unpleasant “noise” can provoke a visceral, fight-or-flight response on a purely reflexive level. Depending on its volume, it may even be physically harmful. By contrast, while similar effects can be achieved in the visual medium they are much more difficult to produce. Indeed, where producible, they are generally only found in the relatively recent work of postmodern artists deploying strobe lights or headache-inducing neons. That is to say work which both stylistically and technologically follows the modernist avant-garde by several decades. Duchamp, Rothko and Pollock may have produced work that was puzzling to behold or disturbing to the psyche, but they were not generally capable of provoking the same physical reaction that being exposed to Kontakte (not to mention Merzbow) at the proper volume might.

This, in turn, raises another concern: for a writer with such a broad understanding of music, it is rather hard to pin down precisely what it is that constitutes “experimental music” for Stubbs. At one point early on he seems to exclude both tonal music and minimalist music from this definition, seemingly leaving us with a small cadre of artists breathing the rarefied air of post-serial composition (e.g., Boulez, Henry, Xenakis, and, yes, Stockhausen). Yet when considering Fear of Music‘s problematic under these narrow constraints, one might wonder precisely which quality it is that links Rothko and Stockhausen together in this argument. Is it their style? The effect they aim to produce on their audience? Their “difficulty”? The era in which they were both created? Some of these aspects line up, while others almost certainly do not.

Finally, there is the issue of the relationship between art forms and the era in which they are produced, and it is here that experimental compositional music can really stake a unique claim, for the curious thing about the mid-20th century compositional avant-garde is that they find themselves always already anachronistic. Theodor Adorno, writing about Schoenberg in his Philosophy of Modern Music, argued that the public feared and shunned the composer’s music not because it was strange, but because it offered uncomfortably familiar parallels with modernity: “The deepest currents present in this music proceed, however, from exactly those sociological and anthropological conditions peculiar to that public. The dissonances which horrify them testify to their own conditions.” Some fifty years later, it is precisely the opposite that obtains; we are by now not only inured to the reorganization of daily life around new, more-efficient-yet-dehumanizing systems but so far down the road of structural systematization that it seems as if we have come out the other end into a world where anything is possible, yet nothing is absolute. In a word, postmodernity. Under such circumstances it is not the “forward thinking” aspects of the serial and post-serial composers that seem foreign to us, but rather their tenuous links to the past, their deployment of orchestral instrumentation, the ways they cling to the remnants of standard musical notation even as they try to reinvent it. All of which is simply another way of saying that it is next to impossible to comprehend the historical significance of post-serial music today without reference to not only Schoenberg and Mahler, but something like acid house. Stubbs is aware of this of course, quoting Stockhausen’s hilarious response to a packet of records sent to him by The Wire in which he comes across as utterly befuddled by contemporary electronic production, but this is the bind that the composer and his contemporaries find themselves in vis-à-vis an audience: their time is perpetually out of joint.

Naturally, these concerns are all acknowledged to a greater or lesser extent in the text and the book’s commitment to both a historical and contemporary perspective on the avant-garde means that it eventually ranges far away from “difficult” composers and out into the wide world of non-academic experimental music from Sun Ra and Faust to Captain Beefheart and My Bloody Valentine. If the book’s title is somewhat misleading in that it does not really answer its initial question – and what true fan of a genre so dedicated to raising questions could really profess to offer a definitive explanation? – it makes up for it by offering instead a very human (and humorous) perspective on an often po-faced genre, backing it up with a wealth of historical context and highlighting a number of important inequities between the visual and aural art worlds. Who could deny, for example, that experimental music and sound art could benefit greatly from just a fraction of the popular attention and institutional patronage that the visual and literary arts receive instead of being left, as it so often is, entirely to the vagaries of the marketplace? In this sense, Fear of Music may be the first step in overcoming this societal anxiety, at least for readers interested enough to pursue the issues it raises.

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  1. By Dossier Journal » One Dimensional Woman on January 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    [...] Stubbs’ excellent Fear of Music (subtitled why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen and reviewed here by Andrew Lison), One Dimensional Woman doesn’t posture. Both highly provocative and eminently [...]

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