At its heart, on some level all art is about other art, suggests author and broadcaster Andrew Ford. All music about other music, and what he refers to as ‘illegal music,’ that which disrupts the prevailing convention, he believes actively refutes the music that came before it.
It’s what punk did to prog rock or how minimalist composers rescued art music from the modernists. They’re provocative words, but what he’s suggesting is that these changes in direction force us to re evaluate our responses to all the music that came before. His book Illegal Harmonies: Music In The Modern Age (Black Inc) is a modernist trawl through the history of 21st century music, a broad sweeping reflection of our musical past.
He touches on John Cage’s notion that in music there is no longer a main stream. Previously music moved informally through a series of changes from baroque to classicism to romanticism and beyond. Cage suggested music has now become a delta, with a series of interlocking tributaries, where influences come and go from all bizarre and unexpected directions. Congolese Rumba anyone?
It’s these kinds of threads, the bizarre interlocking accidents of inspiration that provide the most interest. His focus is classical, or art music and other styles such as jazz and rock are touched but only in their proximity and influence to modern classical. Initially this is off-putting and makes the book a trawl, but for someone who has previously had little interest in classical music beyond noting that Ravel’s Bolero has an extraordinarily long melodic line (listen to it again, it’s amazing), this journey through the past is fascinating.
Who knew of Haydn’s fondness for gypsy music? Mozart’s appreciation of Turkish percussion? Schubert’s love of Hungarian music? Well possibly Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn fans.
Ford’s text flows like the radio documentary that it was. Composers are discussed with little concern for their current popularity, and without a revisionist attitude. A few pertinent points are raised and then we move on. Erik Satie, Albarn Berg, Edgard Varese, Arnold Schoenberg, and Arvo Part, are approached with the same gravity as Bach and Stravinsky. Subjective value judgements are left behind in favour of succinct discussions of approach and in locating the threads that bind or free them.
John Cage’s presence looms large. His ideas and compositions tie the disparate ideas together. ‘Illegal Harmonies’ comes from Cage’s suggestion that everything is music, all you need to do is find or create the order and hear the patterns. Ford suggests with mischievous humour that Cage’s 4’33 is the most important piece ever composed. It’s a piece for solo piano, where the pianist comes out to the piano and proceeds not to play– for 4 minutes 33 seconds. Later Cage revised the piece, allowing people to play for longer or shorter than 4’33 and opening it up to alternate instrumentation. The lesson is there’s no such thing as silence, “by virtue of our attention,” writes Ford, “ sounds become music.” He suggests it works the other way too, when we’re not listening, Beethoven’s fifth becomes noise.
There’s a cacophony of ideas flowing through Illegal Harmonies, however the interest for fragmented frequencies are those areas where Cage’s delta gets muddy. Ford’s interest in the broader context prevents him from discussing the strange bastard sons that dropped from the sky, such as David Fanshawe, or Sun Ra and unfortunately he doesn’t appear to have much interest in over the top symphonic death metal of folks like Dimmu Borgir.
His interest is in the influence of minimalism on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, one of those rare occasions where a classical or new music influence resulted in a pop hit. Or Lou Reeds work with Robert Williams on the opera Time Rocker, which he traces back to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead attending lectures by Stockhausen (who appeared on the cover of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band).
He suggests Steve Reich’s vocal loops influenced the hip-hop and electronica kids, with DJ Spooky, Coldcut and friends remixing his work. He taps into composer Nico Muhly’s work with Phillip Glass, Bjork, and Antony and the Johnsons. He decries Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, ponders the compositions of Billy Joel, and Miles Davis’ and their attempts to be ‘serious’ musicians. He wonders if Kida A is more serious than Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis symphony based on superman comics. Finally he finishes with an earnest epilogue discussing ipods, mp3’s, and the ubiquity of music, before offering an almost desperate plea that perhaps it will help us to use our ears better.