Urban rhythm

Music - Richard Cook on lifting the city to musical expression

Music is one thing that makes cities tolerable, and its abundance in every metropolis has long been taken for granted. It now seems unbelievable that Britain was once so starved of pop that it needed pirate radio stations to broadcast it. As subject matter, though, cities have intimidated musicians and composers. "Portraits" of this or that metropolis have usually seemed small or unambitious. Ralph Vaughan Williams's London Symphony seems just as redolent of today's capital as any more recent attempt to capture it. Robert Graettinger's magnificent City Of Glass, for Stan Kenton's orchestra, is still the only convincing cityscape thrown up by jazz, that most urban of musics.

Heiner Goebbels, a German composer whose works have hitherto been rather intractable and lengthy, has made a tremendous attempt to circumnavigate the modern metropolis in Surrogate Cities, a sequence of pieces recently released on a single CD. As one of the few people to have sat through his three-disc juggernaut, getting on top of this one, which runs a mere 70 minutes, was relatively simple.

As usual with a composer whose approach is relentlessly mixed-media, Horstucke is part orchestral piece and part song-cycle, and is ripe for some monstrous audio-visual staging. Goebbels wrote it for the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt. History plays its part: for his settings, Goebbels reaches back as far as Livy's grim tale of warriors from two cities who fight a war by proxy. Then there is Franz Kafka's story of a city destined to be destroyed by five blows of a gigantic fist, and Paul Auster's threnody for the end of everything, In the Country of Last Things. It sounds a cheerless programme, but Goebbels says he is proposing "a realistic, certainly contradictory but ultimately positive image of the modern city".

What does our modern city sound like? His principal ensemble is the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. Much of the music has the astringent and nerve-jangling feel of a composer determined to split the romantic orchestra asunder. The longest piece is the opening, "Suite for Sampler and Orchestra", which includes samples of a gaggle of voices and groups placed inside a structure that, in its component parts (Chaconne, Gigue, Sarabande, Menuett), is as fastidious as Haydn. The pounding of unidentified objects - such as the rumble of subway trains, perhaps, or road drills - punctuates the playing. The voices of long-dead cantors, lifted from ancient recordings, suggest people hidden within an urban prison. "The Horatian", the three songs lifted from Livy with words by Heiner Muller, is a miniature song-cycle, which is sung with great skill and power by Jocelyn Smith. "Surrogate", sung by David Moss, is about how dangerous it is to be seen running in a city - not because of any inherent threat, but because you will be taken by others as an outsider.

Goebbels isn't much of an insider himself. Much of this music is, inevitably, an abstraction of a subject that resists any realistic portrayal. The most forbidding music here is the orchestra-only piece in the middle of the record, D&C, which is meant to show a city's "structural backbone: corners, pillars, walls, fa-cades". Just as in Graettinger's city made of glass, there's an inhuman sheen to this man-made collection of edifices, conjured up by the pitiless strings that are used to evoke Kafka's hammer blows. Solo instruments scurry through the forbidding ensembles like rats. But this is a city without people.

The final impression of Goebbels's music, even with its cast of characterful voices, is of a place from which people have fled. Huge and undeniably thrilling at many points, Surrogate Cities is some hymn to its environment. But I am tempted to wonder whether this tells us more about our urban Valhalla than Abba did in its four-minute masterpiece, "I am the City".

Surrogate Cities (ECM) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis