If you’re writing a book about revolutions in Western music, the 11th century is a logical place to start. It is true that music has been made for thousands of years, as evidenced by many archaeological finds. But what exactly it sounded like is still a mystery. Only with an invention attributed to the monk Guido of Arezzo (990-1050) is it finally possible to objectively determine the pitch and length of a written note, even without knowing the melody or rhythm in advance: the well-known staves with clefs. It was a radical solution to a conservative goal: to tighten up and spread Gregorian chant more widely, so that the Pope’s countless subjects would finally sing in chorus in their church chant.
Yes, in the 11th century the American pianist and writer Stuart Isacoff begins his Musical revolutions. What follows is an ambitious account of dramatic changes in Western music history. Sometimes ‘gloriously influential’ like Guido’s notation, or the birth of opera in Italy around 1600. Sometimes ‘very disturbing’ like Arnold Schoenberg’s decision at the beginning of the 20th century to abolish the distinction between consonant and dissonance (the twelve-tone music). Sometimes revolutions seem circular: practical notation was sidelined when, in 1952, John Cage decided to use his infamous 4’33” to be performed in complete silence: a composition without notes, which specifically drew attention to the background noise that was present.
In short, it appears to be a traditional study of music history. And you can safely dedicate five large volumes to that, as the late Richard Taruskin did with great elan. Isacoff keeps it to an astonishingly concise three hundred pages, but wants much more. With a broad, spacious look, he describes the phenomenon of the 19th-century virtuoso, places extra emphasis on underexposed female composers, devotes a chapter to the popularity of Western music in China and follows the development of jazz with, among other things, portraits. from revolutionary players like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
This ambitious approach works especially when Isacoff reveals interesting connections. For example, he dwells a lot on the intersection between jazz and minimal music. Steve Reich, an impatient student of composition in the post-war years tired of academic modernism, devoted himself to the San Francisco jazz scene. The saxophonist John Coltrane was a revelation to Reich in particular: he improvised on harmonies ‘that floated like clouds in a windless sky’, with almost changing chords in the bass. Coltrane’s album Africa/Brass (1961) was, according to Reich, in reality one big rush in E major. A revelation: If you were inventive enough in rhythm and melody, you could stick with the E chord as long as you wanted. It proved to be a decisive step towards Reich’s own groundbreaking minimal music.
This example is all the more striking because Isacoff has already detailed how jazz developed before Coltrane. First the swinging, but also tight and simple straightjacket from early 20th century ragtime. Then the complex harmonies of bebop, an almost elitist genre: jazz to listen carefully, not to dance to. And then a new simplicity, the freer improvisation on scales at which trumpeter Miles Davis excelled – culminating in Coltrane’s frenzied improvisations over a minimalist chord progression.
It is vividly described, even for the non-musicologically inclined reader. This shows the passion of Isacoff, who likes to combine classical with jazz improvisations in his own piano recitals. This personal preference also has a downside. You suspect that the author falls asleep with Wagner operas, because the German grandmaster – after all no modest revolutionary – gets only one page of Isacoff. Paganini gets four times as many.
And however well-intentioned and much-needed the attention to women composers and musicians, lumping them into a separate chapter and still keeping them out of the larger narrative remains a bit of a ceremony. It doesn’t help that Isacoff is one moment writing disapprovingly about traditional sexist historiography, the next marveling at both pianist Yuja Wang’s ‘deep musicality’ and ‘short, tight outfits’. He then compares a photograph of Wang ‘with her graceful right leg extended towards the pedal’ with an elegant image by Brancusi. Is it still serious?
Better to enjoy are the many musical anecdotes. For example, John Cage will invite his former teacher, Arnold Schönberg, who emigrated to the United States, to a premiere performance of experimental music. Unfortunately, it is not available. When Cage invites him to another concert, Schoenberg clarifies: ‘I’m not free at any time.’ Even for the grand master of twelve-tone music, certain revolutions apparently went too far.
Stuart Isacoff: Musical Revolutions – How the Sounds of the Western World Changed. Alfred A. Knopf; 288 pages; approximately €30.50.