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Fear of Music

David Stubbs
Fear of Music
Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen
First published by O Books, 2009
144 pages/ $19.95 US

Review by Kate Russell

As the old adage says, “An argument is better than a debate”, though David Stubbs’ Fear of Music (Why People Get Rothko, But Don’t Get Stockhausen) is surprisingly, neither of these. Rather, it is more or less a potted history of avant-garde and experimental music and art and the schism that has continued to exist between them, to varying extents, since their conception. I say surprisingly, as experimental music much as Stubbs acknowledges, still hasn’t reached a point of mainstream acceptance, and scene aficionado as he is, I’d expected a more persuasive, perhaps subjective, read – extolling the virtues of this strange and wonderful noise known as experimental music as opposed to matter-of-fact narration.

Stubbs writes largely in an objective tone, guiding you through the events of the early 20th century through to present day, with the wit of the ‘sometimes comedy writer’ he claims to be very apparent, but also, alas, a high-brow tone to his writing that can make the journey a little arduous at times. I would have hoped for more accessible writing when talking about a music form that is, to many, inaccessible and difficult to comprehend.

I would be hesitant to call this book a ‘light read’ – partly due to its verbosity, partly due to its incredible listing of by-and-large unfamiliar names Stubbs mentions as he takes you through the book. At points in this book, I was swallowed up by words and novelty, having to go back and re-read parts for clarity, which made for a more disjointed read than I would have liked. It was not really until Stubbs’ conclusion where I felt I got a sense of a clear answer to the question the book title evoked (Why indeed do People Get Rothko, But Don’t Get Stockhausen?), having been unable (unfortunately) to figure it out myself before that point.

Unless you are already familiar with experimental artists, you will be in for a few sessions of Google and Youtube searches to get some kind of context on these figureheads of noise Stubbs mentions. Still, if you are willing to put the time in, even absolute beginners to this genre could benefit and enjoy the opportunities for listening to new sounds, and appreciating new art that Stubbs’ journey through his subjects opens up. Speaking only for myself, I had not listened to Stockhausen before, or Sun Ra, for that matter, and actually was pleasantly surprised by the diversity, colour and quirkiness the works of these artists evoked in my mind. Without Stubbs’ ‘passport’ to the world of the alternative, would I have listened to such musical oddities? Possibly not – and perhaps this is where Stubbs, without press-ganging, works his magic on those who otherwise may not listen to such things – he simply shows you where the door is, but doesn’t command you go through it.

I’m not convinced that this book would be enough to convert die-hard objectors to this genre to give it a listen, but for music students, those working in the music scene, or those who simply enjoy furthering their understanding of music as a whole, Stubbs’ book should be a useful and entertaining guide.

Kate Russell is a singer/songwriter and busker from Vancouver, up until recently performing under the stage name Jadis Gloom (www.myspace.com/jadisgloom). Currently she is taking some time out from her solo music projects to write, listen to other styles of music and gain inspiration from other artists and their own creative journeys. Believing that to look into someone’s art is also to look inside their soul, she enjoys the intimate opportunities for understanding others in new ways that being a music critic provides.

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