Book Reviews

ESTWeb Main Index | ESTWeb Reviews Index


The Voice of New Music: New York City 1972-1982

Tom Johnson (Het Appolohuis ISBN 90-71638-09-X)

Do we really need a very chunky paperback reprinting one critic's weekly columns on New Music from a decade of New York's Village Voice? Are you kidding? Of course we do!

And that's exactly what this is. By "new music" we mean not just any old new music, but the art music that managed to steal that label during the seventies and hold onto it ever since: minimalism as produced by everyone from Steve Reich to La Monte Young being the most obvious example. Assuming that you're interested in that area, this is an eminently readable and quite informative book. Tom Johnson is refreshingly unpretentious: if he knows very little about something he admits it. This collection is admirable also for presenting a large selection of the composers and performers who didn't necessarily achieve fame outside the new music community: Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Frederic Rzewski and plenty of others. On top of that, it's an interesting historical record of the minimalist genre's development, providing some insight into what life was like before Philip Glass became as ubiquitous as Persil washing powder. Because of all the New York artistic community's cross-fertilisation, those interested in performance art will also find plenty of period reviews and commentary in here. To a certain extent, it's an impenetrable book to anyone not familiar with the music concerned, but you only need to know and appreciate a few of the musicians to use this as a valuable sourcebook of information on plenty of others. [Review Copy from These Records; also available from Lovely Records]


Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft

Eric Tamm (Faber and Faber ISBN 0-571-16289-4)

This is Tamm's second book, his first being a very comprehensive if slightly academic look at the work of Brian Eno. Released from the constraints of a musicology degree, in this volume he feels better able to add the personal touch, avoid some of the more tediously academic dissection, and stop apologising for the validity of "low culture" music as a topic for discussion.

Fripp's music has varied from the unlistenable (both through sheer banality, rarely, and through sheer esotericism, frequently) to the sublime, but it has maintained a high standard for innovation. Basically a rock guitarist, he's taken the influences of minimalism, jazz and ethnic musics, and used them to create a highly individual, highly complex range of his own music. Highlights from his long career include his two classic albums of looped and manipulated guitar noise recorded with Brian Eno, the intricate contrapuntal rhythms of the second King Crimson band (especially on the album Discipline), and some of his solo work from the late seventies and early eighties, such as Exposure and God Save the King. Whether playing horribly fast series of plucked notes on the electric guitar or turning it's output into long, stretched out tones using his tape-manipulating Frippertronics system, there's a lot of worthwhile music there. The book reflects this, suffering mainly from a tendency to idolise Fripp. Some of the academic rigour of the Eno book might actually have helped matters here. But in return it scores highly by presenting the most thorough examination in print of the influence of Russian "spiritual" "guru" Gurdjieff on Fripp, and how this has affected Fripp's approach to guitar tuition. For fans, an essential purchase, but it may well contain plenty of interest for the more casual reader as well. [Bookshops]


Covert Culture Sourcebook

Richard Kadrey (St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-09776-X, 216pp approx A5)

There have been several attempts to pin down one aspect or other of obscure, alternative, independent or underground culture; Mike Gunderloy's World of Zines is one recent example from the zine world; John Schaeffer's New Sounds is the (flawed) bible of the avant-garde music community. Kadrey's effort is more comprehensive, in that it covers music, books, videos, software and other areas, less so in that it offers fairly subjective and narrow samplings from most areas. Thus the reviews in the Books / Politics chapter are limited to Solanas' SCUM Manifesto, Bob Black's Abolition of Work, the Open Magazine pamphlet series and TAZ, by Hakim Bey. This kind of pick'n'mix approach is frustrating, and limits itself all-too-often to the unrepresentative and the hip. The subjectivity of the approach is typified by the world music section, which mixes people genuinely working on the edge, like Jon Hassell, with ethnic musics that have been around for ages, or African pop that lacks the innovation common to the rest of the book. It's other main fault is that almost everything is presented simply as a commodity; addresses and prices are plentiful, but there's little effort to show how easy it is to participate in the "covert culture", via zine production, mail art, Internetworking or whatever.

On the plus side, it's open-minded and enthusiastic, well designed for easy reference, and unafraid to venture into areas others might not reach: on-line computer networks, animal bone suppliers, sex toys, for example. Its "indy" and "new music" inclusions also include plenty of artists likely to be familiar to EST readers (Arcane Device, PGR, Glenn Branca, Elliott Sharp and many more), and it has plenty of information on mail-order sources. It's coverage is wide enough to ensure even those familiar with the "covert culture" will find plenty that's new, and as an introduction to somebody unfamiliar with these areas, it's particularly suitable. [Available from Counter Productions]


Kraftwerk - Man Machine and Music

Pascal Bussy (SAF Publishing, ISBN 0-946719-098, 192pp approx A5)

Two ideas are really reinforced by the publication of this in-depth history of Germany's most influential pop group. The first is that, since the release in 1981 of Computer World, they have been almost entirely bereft of creative ideas; and the second is that the two main members, Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, appear to be complete twats. You can judge for yourself, if you buy the book, but it's not kind to them. The book explores their history as thoroughly as is possible for such a reclusive group, and attempts to shed light on their significant place in musical history. Needless to say, it's more of a fan's account of events and encounters than an incisive analysis of the impersonality and mechanisation of music that Kraftwerk enthusiastically embraced; and it added little to my understanding of their four classic albums (Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, Man Machine and Computer World). Nonetheless, as the book on Kraftwerk, it's indispensable to the fans amongst us.


Meet the Residents

Ian Shirley (SAF Publishing, ISBN 0-946719-128, 192pp approx A5)

And if Kraftwerk are reclusive, then what does that make The Residents? I found this a much more interesting book, simply on the grounds that the Residents' longer and more varied career means that there's much more to be said about them. Again, it's a fan history rather than a serious critique, and if their influences are succinctly listed (Sun Ra, Harry Partch etc), there obviously needn't be any attempt to trace who they have influenced in turn. They've always been sufficiently unique in their musical approach to spawn very few imitators. Meet the Residents doesn't take an unduly positive approach of their very dull late-80s work, and is definitely worth reading if you admire their work.


Radio Sermonettes

Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade (Libertarian Book Club, no ISBN, 40pp A5)

The M.O.R.C. hides better known authors Jake Rabinowitz, Thom Metzger and Peter Lamborn Wilson (also known as Hakim Bey); the last of these could almost have been solely responsible for this booklet, so much does it echo his writing in T.A.Z. and elsewhere. It's an Immediatist Manifesto in extended form, a collection of essays urging the reader to seek un-mediated experience, to live for the moment, not to grasp opportunities but to do what they want whether or not an opportunity already exists. Various models are proposed for cultural and social structures that fit this immediatist aim, including organising as Tongs, gift-giving parties along the lines of potlatchs, dadaism, and ritual theatre. Like T.A.Z. it's anarchism-as-poetry rather than anarchism-as-politics, and like T.A.Z. again, it's heady, inspiring and imaginative. [Counter Productions]


Secret and Suppressed

ed. Jim Keith (Feral House, ISBN 0-922915-14-8, 310pp approx A5)

This is an anthology of alternative points of view, descriptions of reality at odds with the world portrayed in the mainstream media. What you get are paranoid rants, conspiracy theories, and tales of strange cults; strangely, given Jim Keith's willingness to acknowledge Holocaust revisionism, racial correlation to IQ, and whether or not homosexuality is a pathology as relevant topics, nothing as potentially controversial as these is included. The most likely to offend is an article hinting about a Jewish campaign to help get Clinton elected; that this is so deeply inoffensive is typical of the book. Articles on Jim Jones, Jim Morrison's death and the evidence that AIDS is militarily manufactured present little that will be new to anyone who has read basic conspiracy literature.

On the other hand, the testaments from people who allege that mind control and surveillance devices have been implanted in their skulls are genuinely frightening, and an article on the occult background to the JFK killing fascinated me. British and Irish readers may find the interview with the I.R.A. to be rather naive, but it's good to see evidence of US encouragement of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait being reprinted. In its attempts to subvert and divert the reader's reality tunnel, it's largely successful, much like Apocalypse Culture, which could perhaps be seen as a companion volume. However, the really hardened disinformation addicts may find some of it a little passé and tame; despite Feral House's willingness to bait the politically correct, this is one mind-tunnel this collection does little to challenge.


From Rock to Rock

Eric Barger (Huntingdon House, ISBN 0-910311-61-7, 190pp approx A5)

This ain't just any ol' Christian exposé of rock music, no sir, Eric Barger was a rock musician himself for 20 years before he Saw The Light. Over three years in the writing, this handy guide explains to you why rock music is the music of darkness. By far my favourite chapter is the one that explains rock's occult symbols, including the "peace sign", the Star of David, and that old classic, the Eye of Horace (sic). Barger also presents a useful numerical rating system, by which the code "1, 4, 5" attached to Abba reveals them not only to portray "sexual overtones or perversions", as anyone familiar with this kinky foursome's career might guess but also "occult influences" and "rebellion / violence / vile language". The Beatles score in nine categories out of ten, but sadly Current 93 are only listed as "12" - "unresearched or incomplete research". Skinny Puppy only get three out of ten, but I guess everyone know they're wimps compared to the Beatles. Truly, there are hours of fun to be had from this thing, although From Rock to Rock is less literate and less comprehensive than competitor Bob Larson's Book of Rock. In fact Larson's book is generally more frightening, and a welcome reminder that behind the absurdity, there are still people who want to make our choices for us. If you think they're just a vocal minority, perhaps the recent assault on "video nasties" is a timely reminder that books like this are more than just comic relief.


American Originals

Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker-Smith (Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-17088-9, 280pp paperback; £12.99)

This book interviews some of the best known modern American composers (and some of those a little less well known), including John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, John Adams, Harold Budd, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier and Ingram Marshall. The two themes that run throughout the book are the influence of Cage, and the minimalist tradition. Both are identified by most of the interviewees as a reaction against "European" classical music of the fifties and sixties, i.e. serialism. Most of the interviews are interesting, although the significant problem throughout is a lack of context, as the Smiths leave their subjects to talk and add very little of their own critical voice. There probably won't be many amongst this book's readership who've actually heard the music of Young, Lucier, Marshall and several of the others, let alone heard of them, so I wonder if people drawn in by the presence of Glass, Reich and Adams will end up a little bewildered. Despite the divergent types of music made by most of these composers, there's a homogeneity to their opinions which is quite noticeable, a consensus which is perhaps unsurprising given their status as the old guard of the avant-garde. It makes the American composers' community seem more insular than they really are, and the repeated complaints about European music suggest an unfortunate parochialism. Some of the interviews are also frustratingly short, with answers to questions never quite followed up in the way you'd like them to have been. But, for all its limitations, it's both accessible and informative, particularly if you're familiar with several of the interviewees and would like to learn more about their motivations and ideas.


Censored

Tom Dewe Matthews (Chatto, ISBN 0-7011-3873-4, 291pp paperback; £14.99)

The final chapter of this book, where Tom Dewe Matthews' history of British film censorship deals with relatively recent censorship cases, is a good illustration of just how timely the book is. It ends immediately prior to the Bulger-inspired furore over "sick" videos which led to stricter censorship controls being written into the despicable Criminal Justice Act, at a time when censorship history is being made on a near-monthly basis (as I write, Natural Born Killers has finally escaped the chief censor's temporary ban). But if it brings a lucid, articulate, and liberal sensibility to the sensationalist moral panics that have dominated film censorship since the late sixties, the chronicles of earlier periods are more interesting. James Ferman's predecessors are seen to be irrational, ignorant eccentrics of the highest order, with plenty of entertaining anecdotes of censorious idiocy recounted, but the reminder of how fortunate we are that political censorship is largely a thing of the past (at least in the cinema) is welcome. It's not a comprehensive history, but it's copiously illustrated with stills, and filled with amusing and infurating incidents. Recommended.


Chasing The Vibration

Graham Lock (Stride Publications, ISBN 1-873012-81-0, 192pp approx A5, paperback, £9.50 cover price)

Chasing the Vibration is a book of reprinted interviews with jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Evan Parker and Mike Westbrook. I like it simply because several of the interviews are very entertaining, particularly the one with a more-than-normally obstreperous Taylor. It particularly interests me as an example of music journalism, because it's attention is focussed much more closely on the musicians as persons than on their music. Obviously, this holds a lot in common with popular rock journalism, but I was initially surprised to find it in a nominally more "sophisticated" musical genre. I imagine the jazz community would defend the cult of personality that surrounds so many of the best known jazz figures. However, anyone fed up with rock journalism would suggest that it's just another attempt to take the easy way out, to write about the people because they have more personality and individuality than the music. I'm sure jazzers would respond that the reason their journalism concentrates on the people is simply because jazz is supposed to be a music for very free, direct personal expression; the musical aesthetic is therefore inseparable from the relevant musician him- or herself. Personally, I have my doubts, although obviously extra-musical background or theory isn't irrelevant when writing about music. On the contrary, it's frequently illuminating, but whenever it's the only thing being discussed I tend to assume that the music itself must by implication be of no interest at all. Philosophical doubts aside, this is an informative, down-to-earth and, as I said, entertaining collection. Lock's approach is honest and direct, and the musicians he talks to seem to appreciate it. As well as those mentioned above, some of the other interviewees include Steve Lacey, Marilyn Crispell, John Gilmore, Jimmy Giuffre, Sunny Murray, Dave Holland and Chris McGregor. If like me you have reservations about the obsession with personality, perhaps the most interesting piece is the closing interview with Evan Parker, which manages to communicate the ineffability of what he wants from music, in a very articulate way, without becoming in any way analytical. Your mileage may vary (an interest in jazz might come in handy!) but it's an unpretentious and highly accessible book. [Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW]


Covert Culture Sourcebook 2.0

Richard Kadrey (St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-11255-6, 215pp approx A5, paperback, £8.99)

This is not an update of Kadrey's Covert Culture Sourcebook, it's a second volume, full of all-new listings of subcultural material for you to want and buy. As you'd expect, it's a compendium of material that both slavishly follows fashion (there's a timely but bitty guide to Hong Kong action cinema, for example) and digs out material that lesser writers would never have considered (several good sources of info on pirate radio). Although Kadrey has drafted in other contributors in an effort to stop the sourcebook being too closely tied to his own tastes, I get the impression that a lot of what's included consists just of "cool stuff I've found recently", rather than being the result of any in-depth research into the areas that the book covers. This haphazard approach ensures that there's room for plenty more sequels to come, dishing out the same lavish selection of fringe literature, sex toys, electronic zines, unusual musical instruments, and weird music.

It's perhaps unfair to judge it from the viewpoint of somebody actively engaged in fringe culture; my response to the section on "new music", for example, is to note that it's predictable, unadventurous, and hamstrung by Kadrey's narrow taste. Similarly, the sections on the Internet and "cool" software are a waste of time; far more comprehensive (and, yes, more weird) information is available from any newsagent. In its favour, the book is well-designed and smartly written; I'd be interested to know if it actually is crossing over to a mainstream audience or not, since that's the only place this haphazard, scattershot approach makes any sense.

Kadrey makes strenuous efforts to acknowledge that the Sourcebook is nothing more than a product guide for potential consumers, but if that's the case, why call it a "culture" sourcebook? There's more to fringe subcultures than just buying and selling, although you wouldn't guess it from this book. As well as addresses for mail-order sex aids, why not information on campaigning groups (eg Countdown on Spanner) or events (the Planet Sex Ball)? Politics is, I guess, un-hip, hence the total exclusion of any form of activism from the book. The book's American origins also ensure that any thought that the economy is now a global one have no place here; insularity is the order of the day, and the book's appeal to a non-American audience must be pretty limited.


Industrial Revolution

Dave Thompson (Cleopatra Records, ISBN 0-96361-93-0-6, 150pp approx A4, paperback)

To give him his due, the first thing the author of this book stresses is that it's not the ultimate industrial music handbook. Full marks for knowing his own limitations, I guess. What can I say about a book that opens its chronology of industrial music history with the ridiculous statement that 1928 was when the first "electronic keyboard" [sic], the theremin, was introduced? And that ends its momentous history with Genesis P-Orridge collaborating on a Pigface album in 1994? What should I bother to say about a book which cites the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a classic and long-lived free improv group, in its "punk" section? That thinks S.P.K.'s last record was in 1982? That gives over eight pages to Ministry but Einstürzende Neubauten only one-and-a-half? Don't go thinking that I'm picking on isolated flaws here; the book is riddled with inaccuracies and omissions. 23 Skidoo, Nocturnal Emissions, P16D4, Zoviet France, Whitehouse, Lustmørd, AMM, Luigi Russolo, Pierre Schaeffer, D.A.F., Hula and Merzbow are amongst the many artists left out; overall, the bias against experimental, abstract sound in favour of electrobeat music and industrial rock is overpowering.

Does it matter? Well, it matters if you think that the history of industrial music simply can't be understood properly without reference to its less commercial aspects. It matters if those less populist elements are what you think have been the most interesting and innovative. It matters if you think that the ceaseless debasement of the term "industrial" to refer to just the latest variant in rebel rock posturing is not just a change in the language but has more serious cultural implications. Whatever its flaws, industrial music in its original form was more musically radical than what goes under the name now, and politically far more committed to autonomy and experiment. The use of "industrial" to refer to something less significant acts to deny the radicalism of the original, to create a make believe world where the pretence that no alternative is possible soon turns to the real denial of that alternative.

Industrial Revolution exists in an environment where "industrial music" is just another marketing category, an attempt to match music possessing certain accessible stylisms and signifiers of alienation with a certain stereotypical consumer, in much the same way as ■grunge■ and ■goth■ rock are targetted. It would be silly to suggest that the fans of neo-industrial music responsible for Industrial Revolution are really political reactionaries, and despite the Americocentrism, errors and dubious judgment, if you share Dave Thompson's tastes then you might even enjoy the book. However, if you have any serious interest in the varied forms that industrial music has taken, and in what (if anything) is significant about the genre, you'll almost certainly find it a disappointment. [Cleopatra Records, 8726 S. Sepulveda, Ste. D-82, Los Angeles, CA 90045, USA; review copy from Rough Trade Shop, London]


New Perspectives in Music

Roger Sutherland (Sun Tavern Fields, ISBN 0-9517012-6-6, 287pp A4, £30.00 hardback)

The world's not short of studies of post-war classical avant-garde music; Thomas Holmes' Electronic and Experimental Music, Andy MacKay's Electronic Music, Michael Nyman's Cage and Beyond, the discographical New Sounds, Tom Johnson's anecdotal The Voice of New Music, and Paul Griffiths' two contributions, Modern Music and A Guide to Electronic Music are just a few. So what can another volume offer?

Well, until Nyman's volume is republished (due this year), New Perspectives in Music has the advantage, at least, of being in print and readily available, but it has other qualities that set it apart from the others. Perhaps the most important is its refreshing subjectivity. Unlike, say, Griffiths, who has a very traditional concern for analysis of the score, Sutherland is happy to describe music by visual analogy, and happy also to let his unrestrained enthusiasm for the work of composers like Xenakis and Parmegiani infect the reader. New Perspectives also penetrates topics like sound sculpture, Luigi Russolo's music and the relationship between the musical and artistic avant-gardes with far more thoroughness than most others. The book (thankfully) isn't bogged down in the technological history that dominates most histories of electronic music, nor does it waste undue time on the serialist developments which have achieved mainstream prominence. If, like me, you've come to the classical avant-garde via more populist forms of electronic and abstract music, then you'll probably find it as useful a sourcebook as I did. It also achieves the rare feat in this field of actually inspiring the reader to seek out the music.

The list of criticisms that can be made of the book is unfortunately longer than the list of its merits. Unlike Holmes' book, you won't find SPK and Stockhausen on the same page here, nor Merzbow and Ilhan Mimaroglu. Sutherland evidently still believes that the dividing line between "serious" and "popular" experimental music has some meaning, and I obviously find this disagreeable. This extends to other oversights; improvisation outside the classical arena is generally ignored, with only groups like MEV and AMM covered, and most free jazz and free improv music treated as outside the book's boundaries. More visible cross-overs between classical and pop avant-gardes (Eno, Branca, "intelligent" techno, "cosmic" music etc) also make no appearance, fostering the impression that sonic experimentation only occurs in an elite realm available only to a tiny audience.

This also isn't a book to read if you're interested in only the latest developments or any sort of comprehensive approach. Sutherland's musical history focusses only on the big boys (and they are all boys), to the extent that anyone seeking to learn about, say, Pauline Oliveros, had better look elsewhere. Artists like Trevor Wishart, Steve Moore, John Oswald, Jim O'Rourke, Paul Dolden, Roger Doyle, Phill Niblock, Asmus Tietchens and countless others are conspicuous by their absence, indicative of a lack of interest in both "minor" artists (read: lacking in fame, not talent), and in more recent developments. With the omission of Oswald, it's clear that one of the most important strands of recent musical "progress" might as well not be happening.

Concerns with improvisation, indeterminacy, graphic scores and systems music have preoccupied the classical avant garde throughout this century, and accordingly Sutherland devotes due attention to these various methods of producing music. The other side of the coin, issues concerning the ways music is perceived, or its social function, receive little attention, although it's fair to say that this is a problem with the classical critical establishment as a whole and not just this book. Other identifiable flaws include a lack of editing (individual chapters' origins as separate magazine articles show up very clearly), and a lack of copy-editing (typos and layout imperfections).

It is, of course, easy to pick fault, and despite its narrow scope, I enjoyed New Perspectives and find it to be a valuable reference material. It's lucid and articulate without being overly dry. If you can live with its limits and the price fits your pocket, it deserves your attention.


Amok Journal

ed. Stuart Swezey (Amok Books, ISBN 1-878923-03-X, 474pp paperback, $19.95 / ú13.99)

It's hard to see that this is anything other than the sort of anthology carefully calculated to appeal to devotees of that ever-vague field, the "weird". Sure, Stuart Swezey's introduction tries to suggest the "pursuit of a neurobiological basis for mystical and ecstatic experience" as a theme, but this is just nonsense. Instead, the Amok Journal will appeal to all those assiduous students of the fringes of human behaviour, people who enjoy reading about extreme and unusual practices. Apart from a lengthy interview with Gualtiero Jacopetti (director of the legendary Mondo Cane) and one with Laibach's Ivan Nowak (part of a section on Slovenian art movement Neue Slowenische Kunst), the book consists of reprints from other sources. A section on auto-erotic deaths reprints several studies of and reports on the phenomenon from psychological and medical journals. These are interesting as much for the detailed accounts of erotic asphyxiation as for the contrast between the dry scientific reportage and the comi-tragic nature of what is being reported. A similarly uneasy disjuncture between reality and reportage adds interest to sections on self-mutilation and amputee fetishes. The pleasing scientific objectivity is echoed to some extent in a series of pieces dealing with self-trepanation (its very rare practitioners report better results than from taking drugs). There's an all-too-brief section on cargo cults of the south Pacific, which hints at the incredible power of culture-shock to inspire influential new mythologies, but is really no more than a taster. There is even seventy pages of material on the effects of infrasound, both from the scientific and the religious point of view, to delight anyone who has spent long hours listening to the recordings of such groups as The Anti Group or Lustmørd. (It'll hopefully dispel much of the misinformation that exists too). There's certainly some writing here that is best not read on a full stomach, but anyone with an interest in the topics featured will enjoy the Amok Journal.


Extended Play

John Corbett (Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-1473-8, 342pp paperback, no price given)

Subtitled "Sounding Off From John Cage to Dr Funkenstein", this is one work of criticism remarkable for its diversity of approach. It's a mix of theoretical essays, profiles of musicians, and more straightforward question-and-answer interviews. Corbett's willingness to allow his own arguments to be so jumbled is welcome. Whether every reader will agree has to be open to dispute: someone buying this for the interviews with Cage, George Clinton, Han Bennink, Evan Parker, Sun Ra, Derek Bailey and others might not necessarily be entranced by the theoretical pieces, which operate in a post-Barthes, post-Baudrillard terrain of Battlin' Semioticians, with convoluted language to match. Corbett particularly acknowledges a debt to Jacques Attali's Noise: A Political Economy of Music, a book full of original insight into the history of music and noise. Corbett is less focussed, but most of his theoretical pieces are articulate and provocative; "good entertainment value", in other words. Whether genuflecting at the altar of black science fiction (Sun Ra, George Clinton, Lee Perry), pretending that the London Musicians Collective represents a resurgence of the Fluxus ethic, erecting new critical webs around the fetishistic audiophilia that is central to modern musical history or casting a penetrating eye on background vox in pop music, Corbett remains sharp and his theories imaginative. I was particularly amused by a piece on postmodern strategies in music which likens Psychic TV's album The Politics of Ecstasy to Baudrillard's book The Ecstasy of Communication, with only a faint hint of irony. Genesis P. Orridge is implicitly compared to Michel Foucault, an idea which raises a giggle. The interviews are less wide-ranging than the theoretical pieces, the majority dealing with free improvisors like Jon Rose, Sainkho Namtchylak and Barry Guy, but the down-to-earth tone makes for an interesting contrast with the essays.


Interviews With Sound Artists

René van Peer (Het Apollohuis, ISBN 90-71638-18-9, 146pp paperback, no price given)

Sound By Artists

ed. Dan Lander and Micah Lexier (Art Metropole / Walter Phillips Gallery, ISBN 0-920956-23-8, 385pp paperback, no price given, review copy obtained from Gelbe Musik)

It's a funny old business, "sound art". It's difficult to tell where the boundary between "sound art" and "music" lies, although personally I'd suggest that it's that highly suspect word "art" that's all important. Potentially, there's a huge philosophical chasm between the artist and the musician (particularly nowadays, where critical theory, the verbal framing of art, is often more significant than the artworks themselves). There's a slight element of that philosophy in the sound artists featured in René van Peer's book (all of whom participated in Het Appolohuis's 1987 festival ECHO: The Images of Sound II). Fortunately, however, for every instance of artist as grant-funded-parasite, every instance of artist as hero (visionary, explorer etc), there's a less off-putting counter-example. Some of the artists interviewed here (Joe Jones, Yoshi Wada, Paul Panhuysen) share a background in the art-into-life 60s Fluxus movement, or related 60s happenings. All share a sometimes charmingly inquisitive spirit, an interest in sound-as-sound and in inventorliness that obviously owes more than a little to the example of John Cage. There's a common interest in long-string installations, where steel wires are used to evoke the resonances of the space they're played in (Panhuysen, Terry Fox, Johan Goedhart); also in the creation of mechanisms, sound-producing automata (Jones, Martin Riches). If their gallery-based activities mean that many of these names are unfamiliar to new music devotees (record consumers), that's a pity, because they deserve more recognition outside their usual audiences. Others featured include Richard Lerman, Christina Kubisch and Takehisa Kosugi.

Sound By Artists is a compendium of writing, featuring writers like John Cage, Bill Viola, Max Neuhaus, Alvin Lucier, Hildegard Westerkamp, Gregory Whitehead, Richard Kostelanetz, Annea Lockwood and many others (mostly but not entirely North American). It makes clear another difference between "music" and "sound art", which is often that the former consists of sound organised in time, while the latter relates to sound organised in space (most often by way of installations), and throughout its divergent contents draws attention to difficulties of translation: the relationship between sound and visual art, and the difficulty of representing either in writing. "Noise" is also a frequent presence throughout (both Jacques Attali, author of "Noise: The Political Economy Of Music" and Luigi Russolo, author of "The Art Of Noises" make frequent appearances). On the down side, a couple of discussions of sound-art installations make clear why music is often better off without "art"; they show an all-too-common need to buttress the work with written criticism that implies the art can't stand up on its own. Several contributions are reprints: John Cage's "Credo" from 1937 ("I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase"); a discussion of her sound installations by Christina Kubisch; a discussion of the need to radicalize radio by R. Murray Schafer; and others. Some essays provide a welcome antidote to high-culture assumptions: Donal McGraith ("Art is a display of food to the starving") identifies cassette culture and anti-copyright as a tactic for the realisation and suppression of Art; Chris Twomey even lends artistic validation to the tactics of noise and appropriation contained in that invariably anti-art tradition, industrial music, discussing Non, the Hafler Trio, P.G.R., Negativland and others. Generally, the diversity is enormous, both in the documentation of sound art and the number of issues discussed, but it's the inclusion of provocative essays by the likes of Douglas Kahn (an intelligent critique of music being a hindrance to the development of a wider sound art) that really stands out.


Krautrocksampler

Julian Cope (Head Heritage, ISBN 0-9526719-1-3, 140pp paperback, ú7.99)

If you take my advice, you should consider the ability of some of Krautrock's greatest stars to demolish their own mythology as a salutary warning before reading Krautrocksampler. With groups like Kraftwerk incapable of recapturing lost inspiration, Tangerine Dream a now-dreadful money-making machine, and even Neu! besmirching their own reputation with the recent (appalling) Neu! 4, it's good to be reminded that however influential, however much of it remains amazing, huge swathes of Krautrock were, to be blunt, awful. The reason for this warning is to ensure that Cope's overwhelming enthusiasm doesn't completely rob you of your natural caution! Alongside lengthy, often delirious reviews of 50 classic Krautrock records, Cope explores the history of groups like Can, Faust, Neu!, Kraftwerk, the Cosmic Couriers, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül, Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel and Cluster. Like every true fan Cope is obsessed with "the early years", to the extent that anyone reading this book would be forgiven for thinking that Faust's story ended with Faust IV in 1973. Cope's taste for the wildest possible freak-out, for music as a path to psychedelic inspiration and spirituality isn't for everyone, but there's still more than enough intriguing material here to open the minds of casual Krautrock fans and perhaps inspire them to seek out much that has remained obscure. Hardcore fans will keep looking for a more encyclopaedic account of the genre's many ancestors, groups, and descendants, but I still found Krautrocksampler informative, enjoyable and, at times, inspiring. [Head Heritage, KAK Ltd., PO Box 3823, London N8 8TQ]


Minimalism: Origins

Edward Strickland (Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-35499-4, 312pp hardback, ú24.95)

Strickland discusses minimalism in visual art, as well as music and other fields, ensuring that the common factors linking La Monte Young with (say) Ad Reinhardt get a thorough airing. Other Minimalist visual artists featured include Robert Morris, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, although the book would benefit considerably from more illustrations. In contrast to the bare-essentials, anti-narrative approach that Minimalism entails, Strickland's book is anything but minimalist, exploring competing aesthetic theories, connections between different artists, anecdotes, chronology and influences with extraordinary thoroughness. Just to please true obsessives, he even devotes several pages to the often vexed question of who first applied the term "Minimalism" to music. Was it Michael Nyman? John Rockwell? Tom Johnson? Anal-retentives can find out within.

In the section on music, the author is happy to acknowledge minimalist precursors like Erik Satie, John Cage, Morton Feldman or even Yves Klein (whose Monotone Symphony was performed in 1957), but it's his detailed history of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass that makes for the most fascinating reading. Often forgotten connections between the composers are documented (e.g. the close relationship between Glass and Reich obscured by later acrimony), as are important but more obscure figures such as Terry Jennings, Richard Maxfield, and Dennis Johnson (although the sections on Young would benefit from an understanding of the criticisms made by Tony Conrad and others). Strickland also pays attention to later minimalists such as Charlemagne Palestine, Philip Corner, Rhys Chatham, Ingram Marshall, Phill Niblock and others, although the book is intended more as a study of "origins" than anything else. This is probably not an easy read for anyone not already partially familiar with the subject matter, but for anyone seriously interested in the development of Minimalist art and music, this book is absolutely indispensable.


Mixtery: a festschrift for Anthony Braxton

ed. Graham Lock (Stride Publications, ISBN 1-873012-97-7, 270pp paperback, ú11.95)

A festschrift, to save you looking it up, might translate as a "festival-writing", or a "literary celebration". Mixtery contains contributions from a stellar collection of musicians and writers: Steve Lacy, Val Wilmer, Wadada Leo Smith, Marilyn Crispell, Gerry Hemingway, Evan Parker, Richard Barrett, Graham Lock, John Corbett, Mark Sinker, John Fordham, Art Lange and others. Celebrating the famous jazz composer's fiftieth birthday, there are discussions of his music, tributes, anecdotes, reviews, poems, scores, sketches, interviews, photographs etc. They provide a remarkably coherent picture of the man and his music, and just why his combination of passion and intellectualism has inspired so many. I'll state the obvious and point out that an interest in Braxton and his music is essential if you're going to buy the book, but if you make it over that hurdle, then go buy. Mixtery is full of information and ideas and they combine in more entertaining and intriguing ways than a more conventional book would ever have allowed. [Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW]


Ocean of Sound

David Toop (Serpent's Tail, ISBN 1-85242-382-X, 306pp paperback, ú10.99)

It seems as if every book title has to have a subtitle these days and Ocean of Sound is no exception: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds provides a useful clue to Toop's wide-ranging interests. The book discusses ambient music in passing, touching on Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, The Orb, Mixmaster Morris, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Scanner, Paul Schütze, Pauline Oliveros, Thomas Köner and others. It also explores more wide-ranging musical points of reference, such as John Cage, Claude Debussy, Luigi Russolo, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, Derek Bailey, R. Murray Schafer and John Oswald. But it's also about virtual reality, shamanism, semi-mythical invented instruments, science fiction, post-modernism, environmental sound, the digital revolution, and more. One moment Toop will recount a dream, the next he'll be discussing post-modern philosophy, and then it's on to an autobiographical episode or an interview with a musician. Trivia, theory, anecdote: it's all here. Ocean of Sound is a survey of the disintegration of all music and sound in the twentieth century, taking Debussy's encounters with gamelan music as a possible point of departure. For Toop, it has become increasingly difficult to tell music apart from background noise, and increasingly unnecessary to differentiate. Music has lost the plot: narrative and structure have been replaced by decentring and formlessness. Space has become more important to music than time.

I'll admit to having in the past found Toop's writing opaque: shoe-horned into a record review or magazine interview, speculation of the sort that fills Ocean of Sound often seems irrelevant. Here, however, everything coalesces, everything makes sense. It's easily the best music book I've read in years, articulate and enlightening. This is true however much I disagree with Toop's generally positive attitude towards the musical trends he surveys. At one point he writes: "Blankness - at best a stillness which suggests, rightly or wrongly, political passivity; at worst, a numbness which confirms it - may be one aspect of losing the anchor, circling around an empty centre or whatever the condition is. But openness, another symptom of the condition, may be more significant." I find his willingness to promote post-modern escapism and ignore the "political passivity" which these musical trends breed to be a little disagreeable, but it's a mark of Toop's ability to deal with such substantial issues that his ideas are so provocative. Recommended.


Sounding Off!

ed. Ron Sakolsky & Fred Wei-han Ho (Autonomedia, ISBN 1-57027-058-9, 352pp paperback, price unknown; Autonomedia, POB 568, Brooklyn, NY 11211, USA or via AK Press and Counter Productions in the UK)

A good measure of this book's scope is indicated by the listed contributors, who include Hakim Bey, Billy Bragg and John Oswald: it's music-and-politics time with more shades of leftist politics than you might have thought existed (although anti-art currents in music are notably under-represented, as are questions of how music is made e.g. improvisation). It's also the case that by focussing on explicitly political music, the book sometimes ignores the political element to all other music. Given that the politics of most contributors is contradictory, it would have been nice to see some attempt to made to collide, fuse or destroy these conflicting interfaces, but the approach here is very much hands off. Some stuff will probably already be familiar to EST readers: the contributions of Oswald, Chris Cutler, Negativland, and Stephen Perkins, all dealing with notions of ownership and plagiarism, are all pretty well rehearsed at this stage in the game, and the paeans to noise from Liz Was and Miekal And aren't exactly novel. There are, as you might expect, contributions discussing feminist, black and anti-imperialist perspectives (the editors have a significant world music bias), which although predictable remain interesting. I particularly enjoyed a diatribe by Tom Frank (like too many contributions, another reprint) against American corporatist "alternative" rock, which also finds time for an entertaining assault on the culture studies academics, who seem to find Madonna "subversive". Frank rightly suggests: "Imagine what they could do if they only knew about Merzbow or Borbetomagus!"

The book comes with an accompanying compilation CD, which if anything only highlights the problematic contradictions of Sounding Off! The way in which the music of Thomas Mapfumo, Hal Rammel, John Oswald, Negativland, Sue Ann Harkey (with Hakim Bey), Carol Genetti and others embodies political resistance or subversion is entirely different. It's hard to believe that Mapfumo fans will get a kick out of Hal Rammel, and there are few if any connections to be drawn between their approaches. The book may be a mixed bag, but the CD is a definite disappointment.


Copyright Brian Duguid © 1998