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Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen

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Examines the parallel histories of modern art and modern music and examines why one is embraced and understood and the other ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment, as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated by, and listened to by the inexplicably crazed.


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Examines the parallel histories of modern art and modern music and examines why one is embraced and understood and the other ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment, as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated by, and listened to by the inexplicably crazed.

30 review for Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tim Pendry

    This was an interesting but ultimately disappointing book. It purports to explain why ‘people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen (that is, why crowds worship at the great gallery sanctuaries of modern art but do not listen to modern music). In fact, it is a fairly unsophisticated polemic from a journalist that, in the end, rather fails to do much more than whimper about the current state of affairs. Yet at times, like all good journalism, I found it hard to put the book down and it was only whe This was an interesting but ultimately disappointing book. It purports to explain why ‘people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen (that is, why crowds worship at the great gallery sanctuaries of modern art but do not listen to modern music). In fact, it is a fairly unsophisticated polemic from a journalist that, in the end, rather fails to do much more than whimper about the current state of affairs. Yet at times, like all good journalism, I found it hard to put the book down and it was only when I asked for and failed to get analysis and some depth that the book lost its fifth star. This is not to say that Stubbs is not insightful on aspects of the state of music - he is good on the forward drive in black music, the role of the BBC and the elaborate economic con trick called conceptual art, the perfect art for the age of derivatives and the art we deserved at the time. However, the book introduces us to the key names and works of alternative traditions in Western music. For that reason alone, it is worth buying and (if you live in London) wandering around the more recherché record shops in and around Berwick Street in Soho to pick up something different. I shall get my own theory out of the way which has nothing to do with capitalism or power but simply is about time. We can take in a picture at a glance and then choose to go back for more when we have sufficient time. The glance allows us to ‘fake it’ until we do so and can help create a shared cultural illusion that we all 'get it'. Music takes time, even in YouTube gobbets. You either experience it in some extended time or you do not experience it at all. If it is difficult or you are not in the mood, there is less incentive to get enough of it to park it for later and, of course, it is not easy to point at this ‘it’ to another as if you understood it. Because our culture pours over us so many opportunities to see art in an instant and because we are used to the two or three minute quick fix single or track, it takes proportionally greater effort to experiment with sound – so we don’t. Life is too short in a very meaningful sense. There is also a psychological issue that Stubbs only skims, referring at the end to David Reynolds on the problem of ‘noise music’. Art and music is seen to be, perhaps required to be, a soother of anxieties or an expression of adolescent feeling. It forms the mind in youth and comforts later. Music is not, for most people, a thing-in-itself. It cannot have a discomfiting purpose, one designed, as Throbbing Gristle clearly intended it to have, to change consciousness through disrupting perception. The population are not elite tantrics but rather are stressed out survivors of a demanding capitalist democracy. They simply cannot cope with Anonymous, let alone Sun Ra. This exhausted population wants meaning on a plate rather than to be faced with anything that simply exists in and for itself, meaning that soothes and endorses identities that are constructed not in accordance with reality but in defiance of it. Nevertheless, as a guide to various corners of ‘difficult music’, this book can be read with profit. The musicians and composers named by Stubbs and not previously known to me will now be searched out over the coming years. If others do this perhaps advanced music will become more popular. As someone who discovered Stockhausen early and preferred ‘Gesang der Junglinge’ to the bleatings of the late romantics, perhaps I have a nose for ‘noise’. But there are treasures out there for anyone, most of which can be found with only a little effort on YouTube and then put it in a Playlist for when time is available. One major complaint is that the proofreading of this book is, in places, dire. The idea that an ‘ethical and distinctive publishing company’ [Zero Books] might be permitted more latitude in this respect than evil capitalists is absurd. It rather confirms the prejudice that lefties find it difficult to organise a whelk stall.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ugh

    Despite being subtitled "Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen", Fear of Music doesn't actually address the question of "why modern [read: avant garde] art is embraced and understood while modern [as above] music is ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated and listened to by the inexplicably crazed", as the blurb puts it, until its conclusion - a mere 26 pages out of 137. Rather, the first 111 pages set out the parallel histories of the two b Despite being subtitled "Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen", Fear of Music doesn't actually address the question of "why modern [read: avant garde] art is embraced and understood while modern [as above] music is ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated and listened to by the inexplicably crazed", as the blurb puts it, until its conclusion - a mere 26 pages out of 137. Rather, the first 111 pages set out the parallel histories of the two beasts. The answers eventually proffered are: because the megabucks associated with modern art have familiarised the public with it; because modern music can feel like an infliction; because music more powerfully depicts the future, and the future is bleak; because humans are inherently more tolerant of visual than auditory chaos; and, a more general repetition of the first, because people aren't used to modern music. Of these, I give most credence to the infliction and tolerance suggestions. To take the latter first, modern music much more commonly causes physical pain through sheer extent (in its case, volume) than modern art when experienced live, and auditory chaos also much more readily causes headaches (even at reasonable volume). The infliction point is related. Although modern art often aims to challenge, it doesn't generally aim to cause as much unpleasantness to its audience as possible, whereas this does seem to be the aim of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Napalm Death and Sunn O))). A more appropriate comparison to these more extreme avant garde bands than the sublime (in an artistic sense) works of Rothko would be images of violence such as those force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The very premise of the book is on shaky ground in this respect. In setting out the history of avant garde music, Stubbs includes such figures as Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Brian Eno and Radiohead - hardly musicians that lacked a popular following. Furthermore, he states that millions of people already do embrace avant garde music (albeit calling this "a tiny fragment of the overall demographic"). Most damagingly, he even says "it's hard to conceive that Duke Ellington's music was once considered 'dissonant' or to recapture just what a fissure the joyful peal of Louis Armstrong's trumpet represented" - i.e., that in these cases at least the avant garde has been wholly accepted by and subsumed into the mainstream. Likewise, although Rothko is indeed extremely popular, the same cannot be said of all avant garde art. The Tate Modern may receive millions of visitors per year, but this is due more to its cannily having been established as a symbol of trendy London and to the monumentalism of the building itself than to its housing works by the likes of Giacometti, which are barely glanced at by the incessantly shuffling crowds, despite a Giacometti having sold for $141m this year. The public much prefers shows of works by old masters like Rembrandt and Leonardo or impressionists like Monet to the Futurists or conceptualists. Having said all that, I like the premise of the book even if it's a false one, simply because it gives Stubbs the chance to provide his parallel histories of these two fascinating movements. And I like the book itself: Stubbs writes well and with a keen eye for what to cover from what must have been a wealth of material, and includes just enough of himself to add an extra dimension without being intrusive. I read it in one day, fighting to keep going through straining eyes. The book is also a fantastic way of discovering new music, and I recommend having access to Spotify or similar when reading it so that you can appreciate what's being discussed as you go along. I also like the ethos of Zero Books, which claims to have the lofty aim of fighting the contemporary elimination of the public and the intellectual. However, while both the publisher and the author seek to stand up for the avant garde, I do wish they hadn't taken such a free-thinking approach to grammar and spelling in the edition of FoM I read: practices such as printing words in a meaningful order, including every word in a sentence but only as many times as is required, subject-verb agreement, apostrophe placement, knowledge of what commas are for and reserving paragraph returns for the ends of paragraphs do help to convey a message more easily, boringly conservative though they may be.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Irene

    Great title, very attractive subject. Sadly, the execution didn't live up to either of these. By the end I'd gained (or been reminded of) lots of reference points to go and look up in my own time, but very little sense that Stubbs had answered the question he posed in the book's subtitle. Also, and it may seem like a small quibble, whoever proofread the book (assuming anyone did) needs to be shot. Great title, very attractive subject. Sadly, the execution didn't live up to either of these. By the end I'd gained (or been reminded of) lots of reference points to go and look up in my own time, but very little sense that Stubbs had answered the question he posed in the book's subtitle. Also, and it may seem like a small quibble, whoever proofread the book (assuming anyone did) needs to be shot.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Stagger Lee

    I usually enjoy Stubbs' work but this is poor. The initial premise ('why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen') is an intriguing one that he doesn't (can't?) follow through and after the pretty good first chapter, it ends up being a scrappy history of experimental music with the odd reference to Warhol or Walter Benjamin chucked in. It's also badly written, barely edited, full of non sequiturs and threads that go nowhere. There's a good book to be written about this, but Fear Of Music isn I usually enjoy Stubbs' work but this is poor. The initial premise ('why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen') is an intriguing one that he doesn't (can't?) follow through and after the pretty good first chapter, it ends up being a scrappy history of experimental music with the odd reference to Warhol or Walter Benjamin chucked in. It's also badly written, barely edited, full of non sequiturs and threads that go nowhere. There's a good book to be written about this, but Fear Of Music isn't it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    WM Hall

    Feels a little unfocused at times and can often be somewhat overwhelming in the sheer volume of information it provides in its short length. Introduction and conclusion aside, it is very much a parallel history of avant-garde music and avant-garde art. Only in the closing pages do we receive an 'argument'. Still, an engagingly (often poetically) written, thought-provoking, informative and well informed book. (Just wish Zer0 would edit their books better!!) Feels a little unfocused at times and can often be somewhat overwhelming in the sheer volume of information it provides in its short length. Introduction and conclusion aside, it is very much a parallel history of avant-garde music and avant-garde art. Only in the closing pages do we receive an 'argument'. Still, an engagingly (often poetically) written, thought-provoking, informative and well informed book. (Just wish Zer0 would edit their books better!!)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Petr Šrajer

    Stubbs si v podtitulu pokládá lákavou otázku: jak je možné, že lidé berou avantgardní výtvarné umění, ale ne už avantgardní hudbu. V první kapitole téma skvěle otevírá, ale potom z něj rychle uteče a po většinu knihy zkratkovitě, i když čtivě, zpracovává vývoj hudební avantgardy (od Schönberga po Aphex Twin) s občasnými výlety do oblasti výtvarného umění. Dostal jsem se tak sice k řadě mně doposud neznámých jmen, po zmíněném úvodu jsem ale očekával něco jiného.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Matt Dennewitz

    Too thin, Rooster. Too thin. Iffy attempt at explaining dissonance between the visual and the auditory using an awkward slice of artists and bands. Skip to the conclusion, which would’ve been a fine blog post.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Partially disconnected essays about art and music that don't go a long way towards answering the titular question but are nonetheless interesting. Got me to listen to Can and Webern again and discover Bruno Maderna and Psychedelic Horseshit. So that's all good. Partially disconnected essays about art and music that don't go a long way towards answering the titular question but are nonetheless interesting. Got me to listen to Can and Webern again and discover Bruno Maderna and Psychedelic Horseshit. So that's all good.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Avantguarddog

    First few chapters are very good, then goes fully into middle aged man music critic mode with an irrelevant and way too long middle section about the history of krautrock and post punk.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    I can never be entirely decisive on these star ratings; two or three stars? The author does make some points, but in the end he neither seems to have really addressed the issue posed in the title, and some points are severely under-explored. At 137 pages, "Fear of Music" feels like either an essay that's been padded, or a full length book that hasn't been developed. He's clearly coming from the music end of things (as am I) and sometimes writes a sort of primer on new and avant garde music trends I can never be entirely decisive on these star ratings; two or three stars? The author does make some points, but in the end he neither seems to have really addressed the issue posed in the title, and some points are severely under-explored. At 137 pages, "Fear of Music" feels like either an essay that's been padded, or a full length book that hasn't been developed. He's clearly coming from the music end of things (as am I) and sometimes writes a sort of primer on new and avant garde music trends. I can understand devoting a page and a half to Sun Ra, something I personally don't need to have explained, but by comparison he doesn't write in detail nearly as much about visual artists. On the other hand, there is a passing reference to noise/power electronics groups, but doesn't actually name any of them (presumably Whitehouse and their ilk; it's almost as if they were so unsavory that he didn't want to mention them by name). The author also places a tremendous importance on post-punk music. While I like some of the groups he writes about in that passage, it seemed oddly weighted on this particular point. So what do I believe is missing here? I want to be considerate; I don't necessarily find it fair to review what a book is not, more what it is. That being said...I would start by saying that he never addresses why people DO get Rothko, instead describing the spectacle of the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, and the greed to own such artworks on the part of the wealthy and corporations. Nor does he go into detail why people might get Stockhausen. Fleetingly he makes a point about the difference in level of focus and concentration of experiencing a painting, as opposed to listening to an extended Stockhausen work. It's underdeveloped. I would argue that all music, perhaps all temporally-based art, requires a greater level of concentration than experiencing any still painting or sculpture. One can be highly moved by, say, "Guernica", or a great Rothko painting, but the viewer experiences it on his/her own time frame. You walk up, walk back, look around it, leave, come back; it's not really imposing time on you. Even a Mozart symphony, relatively undissonant to modern ears, requires the listener to patiently sit and experience the work over a period of time. As mentioned previously, the author makes some mention of noise, but doesn't fully expand on ideas of what noise is, what its place is in music, and what its effect is. Composer Anne LeBaron once said to me, noise in composition is one of the two major developments in 20th century composition. (I forget what the other was, chance techniques perhaps?) As I think has been mentioned in other reviews, technically speaking this book is in serious need of proper editing. There are randomly placed mid-sentence paragraph breaks scattered throughout the book. It's sloppy publishing and doesn't serve a purpose here (unlike, say, the William Burroughs essay that uses no punctuation, or my friend tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's dissections and reassemblages of the written word). Stubbs has a bad tendency to write extended, run-on sentences, and that's coming from someone who tends to write run-on sentences. Recommendation? Don't run out for this, but if you come across it at the library, it might be worth paging through.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    I enjoyed this book, but the proof-reader was asleep I think when he nodded it through, which is a wee bit frustrating getting pulled up by strange punctuation and split sentences. He acknowledges at the outset that the book doesn't purport to be a comprehensive catalogue of modern/ experimental music. The chapter on early 20th century modern classical music got me tracking down some music I hadn't come across before, eg Xenakis, but the later chapters used far weaker examples, going on a bit ab I enjoyed this book, but the proof-reader was asleep I think when he nodded it through, which is a wee bit frustrating getting pulled up by strange punctuation and split sentences. He acknowledges at the outset that the book doesn't purport to be a comprehensive catalogue of modern/ experimental music. The chapter on early 20th century modern classical music got me tracking down some music I hadn't come across before, eg Xenakis, but the later chapters used far weaker examples, going on a bit about some fairly run of the mill music whilst overlooking some more obvious examples. There was an interesting discussion on how the visual arts achieved success by putting a price on things, which musicians find harder to do. This also is discussed later on in the hypocrisy tied up in the corporate sponsorship of the arts. The conclusion briefly mentions the strong position of women in modern electronic music and brief mention is given to some Japanese musicians, two areas which could have been explored more at the expense of other stuff. At the end of the day I prefer it when there is overlap and cross-pollenation in the arts and people aren't pigeon-holed as a 'type'. I can only illustrate that by saying that whilst writing this I am listening to Max Richter's "infra", which I first heard as incidental music at the theatre last week, the National Theatre of Scotland doing Macbeth, and the cd cover is a picture by Julian Opie. It works for me.

  12. 4 out of 5

    C.Reider

    The best thing about this book is the title and the question it poses. Sadly the book doesn't really make but a cursory effort toward answering this intriguing question. The book starts off nicely enough, setting up the reader to expect an exploration of cultural attitudes about music and art, and instead most of the book is wasted on a stunted rehashing of the history of avant-garde music, with a very biased view of the more recent developments in countercultural sound (punk: GOOD / prog: BAD). The best thing about this book is the title and the question it poses. Sadly the book doesn't really make but a cursory effort toward answering this intriguing question. The book starts off nicely enough, setting up the reader to expect an exploration of cultural attitudes about music and art, and instead most of the book is wasted on a stunted rehashing of the history of avant-garde music, with a very biased view of the more recent developments in countercultural sound (punk: GOOD / prog: BAD). Only in the conclusion of the book are a few pages tossed off addressing the central question, and it seems hasty and shallow. Other reviewers have made note of the bad editing job, I'd have to echo that criticism, the weird line breaks, odd sentence construction, typos, repetitions and other errors really become distracting during the course of the read. The writing style is... easygoing. Might be a good book for someone new to the subject. It is an approachable piece of writing, if somewhat misleading and misfired. ETA: Others have mentioned and I agree; that this review may is not only spot on, but may be more informative than the book itself: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/0...

  13. 4 out of 5

    Herb

    Like a lot of books that purport to tell WHY something happens, this one just reports that things DO happen. &, I'm sorry to say, in this book David Stubbs doesn't even do that very well. His understanding of art history is limited (as an example, the dynamic between photography and painting is a lot more complex than Stubbs claims) and a lot of his music references are not much deeper. A comparison of the general reception of contemporary visual art and contemporary music deserves more thought Like a lot of books that purport to tell WHY something happens, this one just reports that things DO happen. &, I'm sorry to say, in this book David Stubbs doesn't even do that very well. His understanding of art history is limited (as an example, the dynamic between photography and painting is a lot more complex than Stubbs claims) and a lot of his music references are not much deeper. A comparison of the general reception of contemporary visual art and contemporary music deserves more thought and study than is exhibited here. And, yes, this has to be one of the most poorly proofread books to be released by a commercial publisher.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Domitori

    A book of misplaced commas. A book in desperate need of an editor or anyone with a pair of functioning eyes and rudimentary knowledge of grammar and syntax. A book with ridiculous premise and lack of coherent argument to support it. Instead of argument, what we get is Wikipedia-style Cliff Notes on the history of modern music and modern art. Do read this instead: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/0... A book of misplaced commas. A book in desperate need of an editor or anyone with a pair of functioning eyes and rudimentary knowledge of grammar and syntax. A book with ridiculous premise and lack of coherent argument to support it. Instead of argument, what we get is Wikipedia-style Cliff Notes on the history of modern music and modern art. Do read this instead: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/0...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alex Delogu

    A lively engagement with the history of music. The big let down is that it doesn't really tackle the thesis set up on the cover. It doesn't really explain why difficult music is less accessible than difficult art. There are few points in the concluding chapter that are worth exploring in greater depth, like the lack of an original and music and the consequent difficulty of monetization of music. Overall an interesting read. Avoid if you're already well versed in modern music history. A lively engagement with the history of music. The big let down is that it doesn't really tackle the thesis set up on the cover. It doesn't really explain why difficult music is less accessible than difficult art. There are few points in the concluding chapter that are worth exploring in greater depth, like the lack of an original and music and the consequent difficulty of monetization of music. Overall an interesting read. Avoid if you're already well versed in modern music history.

  16. 4 out of 5

    David Hall

    I found some interesting anecdotes and made a few musical discoveries in the 'Fear of Music', yet it takes forever to get to the core of his argument. The writing isn't very focused and he ends up wondering from tale to tale, although he does have a light and fluid style. In the end, Stubbs never comes up with a satisfactory or convincing argument and I was left wondering what it was all about. Frustrating. I found some interesting anecdotes and made a few musical discoveries in the 'Fear of Music', yet it takes forever to get to the core of his argument. The writing isn't very focused and he ends up wondering from tale to tale, although he does have a light and fluid style. In the end, Stubbs never comes up with a satisfactory or convincing argument and I was left wondering what it was all about. Frustrating.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mark Winkelmann

    Main points are interesting but its a decent article padded out with a lot of musical history which while well written and interesting doesn't do much if anything to advance the debate. You could read the intro and concluding chapters and have extracted the music vs art debate. Terrible amount of typos too. Main points are interesting but its a decent article padded out with a lot of musical history which while well written and interesting doesn't do much if anything to advance the debate. You could read the intro and concluding chapters and have extracted the music vs art debate. Terrible amount of typos too.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Simon Sweetman

    A really great wee book, this. A thoughtful look at how experimental art is often praised, has all but become its own mainstream where the musical version has buried itself in the underground, seeking refuge in the shadows

  19. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    Reviews: http://www.newstatesman.com/2009/06/d... http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/0... Reviews: http://www.newstatesman.com/2009/06/d... http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/0...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dave Sumner

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eelco

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dan Piponi

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tania

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dorian Fraser-Moore

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lee Barry

  27. 4 out of 5

    Pete

  28. 4 out of 5

    Michael Rene Torres

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tomer Yaacoby

  30. 5 out of 5

    Phil

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