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

The recent series Mad Men, set in early 1960s New York, garnered as much attention for its carefully placed period references as it did for its storylines. In one episode, a group of advertising executives ponders the significance – financial and aesthetic – of the Rothko painting that their director keeps in his office; meanwhile, the anti-hero Don Draper is seen sneaking out to watch French New Wave films and reading from Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. But his highbrow leanings stop there; unless the third series has a very different musical consultant, we are unlikely to witness Draper listening to the works of Rothko’s friend Morton Feldman, or his colleagues discussing the latest John Cage performance. Modernist art and literature are shown to have permeated everyday life in a way that their musical equivalents did not then, and do not now.

However, any direct comparison of two art forms should be approached with caution and David Stubbs, for the most part, avoids any easy answers to the implied question of his subtitle. Instead, Fear of Music is a speedy tour of 20th-century music and concurrent developments in art, recounted with a mixture of rancour and exuberance. While the author’s accounts of the Italian futurists’ noise machines, Kandinsky’s correspondence with Schoenberg, and an appreciation of Edgard Varèse might not satisfy an art historian or musicologist, they bring the subject matter to life vividly and succinctly. Likewise, postwar art and music are deftly intertwined in a chapter that pulls together Cage, Ornette Coleman, Yves Klein and the Fluxus movement.

However, a long passage on the outsider jazz composer Sun Ra heralds one of Fear of Music’s most problematic aspects: as we progress through the 1960s and 1970s and – inevitably – into the post-punk era (the eulogising of which has become a standard of rock criticism in recent years), visual art disappears in favour of extended descriptions of Stubbs’s musical enthusiasms: for example, AMM and the British free improv scene, and Krautrock. By the chapter “Europe Endless: Post-Punk to the Nineties”, it is less a book about music’s relationship with art, and more just another recounting of rock music’s more artful period. That some of this music was influenced by or misunderstood like its avant-garde classical predecessors does not really get us back on topic, and by the time we return to conceptual and sound art in chapter six, the thread has been lost.

Perhaps the retelling of these hagiographies could have been curtailed in favour of the question at hand, for as soon as Stubbs attempts to respond to it, it is clear that we are dealing with a wealth of fascinating physical, emotional, environmental, economic and sociocultural phenomena. The author hurries through this, however, touching on Afro-futurism, the political and emotional role of noise, the wealth extremes of the art market and the relationship between visual art and corporate sponsorship.

In the end, Stubbs is unable to avoid a defensive, slightly abrasive tone, which is hardly likely to draw readers into thinking afresh about new music and sound. For that, David Toop’s Haunted Weather is recommended; and the interview-based Settling the Score, by Michael Oliver, is a much better starting point for those needing a primer on 20th-century music. Yet at the heart of this polemic is a pertinent point about our relationship with unfamiliar sound and the vocabulary we use, or rather don’t use, to discuss it.

Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen
David Stubbs
Zero Books, 144pp, £9.99