More than words can say

A new generation of bands is doing away with lyrics

I listen to music constantly, become obsessed with particular records and often feel the need to rant to people about them; pieces that, for some reason, I think may affect and change their lives for the better, be it for as little as a minute and 20 seconds. However, I know very little about how music is made or constructed, despite years of expensive lessons on a variety of instruments and a brief tour around Germany with a brass band.
If I were to attempt to make a record, I know that the area in which I would struggle most would be in writing lyrics. How can you be that open about your thoughts and give people the opportunity to ridicule what you're saying? It has always seemed to me a very brave thing to do. And lyrics can put the listener off an otherwise decent tune. Once, I didn't play a record on my radio show because the band kept making references to hanging out in Camden Town. Shallow, I know, but it was annoying.

It is with joy, therefore, that I've noticed that there seems to have been an increase in popular acts that do without words altogether - or whose vocals are muffled, quiet and unintelligible, as if they were trying to tell you something not very important from the other side of a brick wall. In the past, instrumental acts would have been solely associated with either dance music or what is irritatingly referred to as "chill out" but, in the past few years, this seems to have changed, with some instrumentals even getting played on daytime radio.

The increase almost certainly has something to do with the huge success and popularity of dubstep, a genre of dance music that managed to sneak its way into pretty much every corner of the music world, including the UK Top 40. Musicians have since opened up the genre so much that it is no longer distinct and people don't know how to categorise the acts that have sprung out of its ashes.

In the post-dubstep era, people have become used to the idea of watching instrumental acts in much the same way as you would go to watch a band -without feeling the need to get wasted or dance, like you would in a nightclub. You could probably even get away with some beard-scratching. And these acts are performing in venues once reserved for more conventional, all-singing bands, as well as signing up to record labels that would previously not have ventured outside of indie rock.

The instrumental acts that I have been digging most this year vary considerably, from the slightly mystical and hypnotic duo Mount Kimbie to Fuck Buttons, who move rather gracefully from the sort of euphoric, electronic sound that you might associate with being fired into space to something close to thrash metal. Another fave from 2010 has been an indie-rock track by Civil Civic called "Run Overdrive" - you spend five minutes waiting for the vocals and they just don't turn up.

There is an ever-expanding list of instrumental acts, which includes Gold Panda, Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Forest Swords. Their styles are varied, but what links them is that you really don't notice the lack of words - these people are extraordinarily good at creating pictures out of sound alone and their music is, strangely, all the more beautiful for it. Even the noisy, aggressive acts.

Of course, there is the chance that, as I grow older, I am subconsciously just becoming more attracted to music without vocals. Instrumentals allow you to flood the music with your own story without some young buck trying to tell you his. If this is the case, though, it is somewhat embarrassing and I'd rather you didn't say a word. l

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

Fresh sounds from the BBC 6 Music DJ

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era