Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Donald Clarke: The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995)

Published: Viking, 1995

What requirements are there for a history of "popular music"? In some ways, Clarke's work seems to fit the bill admirably. While he doesn't actually define what he means by the phrase, and discusses music which has never been all that popular with the general public, the book basically covers music from non-classical genres in the US from the early nineteenth century to the 1960s. He talks briefly about British music in the eighteenth century, and again looks at the UK in the prelude to the British invasion of the mid sixties, and ends with some discussion of later trends (of which more later) and a couple of paragraphs about the music of the rest of the world, but actually he what Clarke is looking at - and what the history of popular music effectively boils down to - is the way that the modern music industry developed, from the first publishers of sheet music for a mass market. In musical terms, the body of work produced by this industry most deserves the label "popular", as a major part of the American cultural domination of the modern world. This doesn't just include music which is popular at the time, but should reasonably also discuss the music which influences popular genres or is not yet popular (such as the blues), and popular music which is no longer primary in the market (such as post-war jazz). Clarke does both, perhaps concentrating too much on the latter. Overall, he has chosen a reasonable interpretation of what is meant by "popular music".

The author of such a history must be knowledgeable about the subject; this is not so easy as it sounds as there are few people who know much about nineteenth century black-face performers and about bebop. While Clarke manages this admirably up to about 1965, he is opinionated and dismissive of almost all popular music since then - jazz, becoming a niche interest by that time, no longer really falls into the "popular" category and should really have been discussed mainly to suggest reasons why it became less popular - it became viewed as "art music", but was this because it became more difficult to understand as a listener, or was it due to perception or marketing?

This brings us to the main problem with the book, which is this antipathy to anything more recent than 1965 or so that isn't jazz. The problem with rock music, as Clarke sees it, is poor musicianship. It is certainly true that the standard to which instruments are played is often lower (though there are virtuoso players - many heavy rock guitarists, for example) and the stars are often bolstered by unsung session musicians (and Clarke misses the opportunity to point to one of the most famous examples of this, the original single version of Mr Tamborine Man by the Byrds) or by production techniques which smooth over the rough edges. However, the democratisation of popular music brought in by rock and roll is something of a return to the earlier traditions of folk musics, with the first half of the twentieth century where professional players and singers provided music for the masses being something of an aberration. This change, though, is effectively what Clarke means as the "fall" of popular music, and he talks about it as the legacy of the fame of Elvis Presley (as a former truck driver with no musical education) and the Beatles (who made it fashionable for bands to write their own material, however poor, rather than relying on professional song writers). However, rock music is popular, without a doubt, and (despite the judgements explicitly promised in the title) a history of popular music shouldn't be so dismissive, particularly as it leads to the omission of several important developments. It would be possible to dismiss jazz for equally personal reasons (I used to feel that except in the hands of an absolute master, improvised solos were just too banal to be worth listening to, for example): just because the author doesn't like a genre, doesn't mean that it's not popular music.

Some of the issues he raises have basically ceased to be the case: Clarke bemoans the loss of local music stores with knowledgeable personnel, and the Internet has more or less replaced this, as people can order just about any recording that's in print (and many that aren't) through Amazon or other record stores, view Web sites which tell them anything they want to know about a band, and listen to music from local (or not so local) up and coming musicians through MySpace and its competitors. Similarly, he is scathing about the quality of US radio, and the rise of independent media such as podcasting has thrown up an alternative. (However, since the nature of podcasts is that the listener needs to actively subscribe, it requires more engagement than overhearing a radio station playing inside a shop, so the two kinds of media are not precisely parallel.) The current fuss about the sharing of music over the Internet is also something which might well have been mentioned had the book been written now (and the importance of the Internet is a measure of how much has changed in the last ten years): it would follow on from the discussion of earlier attempts by the music industry to act restrictively against changes in the marketplace.

In other cases, his opinionated stance means that Clarke almost completely ignores developments which to me seem to be important. The rise of the power of an artist's image is really important in modern popular music, and it is not something ever mentioned directly (MTV and video, crucial elements of this change, get a brief mention). There are entire genres and approaches to music making that are either completely (punk) or almost completely (reggae) left out. Synthesisers are ignored. As a result, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music is at best a personal history of popular music, rather than one which covers everything which should really be in such a book.

In the end, it is fascinating to read, but will probably infuriate many readers. Re-reading it now has certainly inspired me to listen to more jazz: and that means that The Rise and Fall of Popular Music has done the best thing that a book on music can do, which is to send the reader back to the music itself.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Stephen Hunt: The Court of the Air (2007)

Published: HarperVoyager, 2007

Iain MacLeod's The Light Ages is one of my favourite fantasy novels of the decade, and one whose influence seems clear in Stephen Hunt's debut. The world here is very like MacLeod's: a pretty unpleasant early industrial landscape with magic. Rather than the nineteenth century slums of the north of England which interested MacLeod, however, Hunt is clearly inspired by the brutalities of the French Revolution.

Two orphans, one from an orphanage in the city, the other brought up on his uncle's country estate, suddenly find themselves hunted by ruthless killers: they are obviously special to someone, but they have no idea why. In the first half of the novel only the "bad guys" know what is going on (and even they turn out to be disparate groups all keen to trick each other, to carry out schemes designed to put their group on top). This works very well, and by the half way stage, I was thinking that this would be one of my top fantasy novels of 2007.

But then the story moves into a description of an epic battle, with encounters between many of the characters who have been involved in the story so far. This half of the novel is much more problematic. The battle, with ground, aerial and underground forces, as well as a mystical battle and a multiplicity of factions, is extremely complex, and Hunt never really gives enough of the big picture for it to cohere in the mind. (Admittedly, I was suffering from a fever when I was reading the end of The Court of the Air, so my mind was not at its sharpest.)

So, there are many excellent things in The Court of the Air. There are two that I have not mentioned so far: I like to see fantasy novels that stand alone, that do not have to be read as part of a series. Hunt also excels at a key skill of the fantasy genre author, the invention of names, which are vitally important in the depiction of atmosphere. Even so, it fails to live up to its promise, and left me sufficiently disenchanted that I have not even listed Hunt as an author I should look out for in the future.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

Published: Hamish Hamilton (2007)

Having mentioned the Man Booker Prize in my previous post, I now come to the first of my annual read through of the short list. And it is a good one too: I'd rank this a better than any of last year's short list, and probably as the best novel about how 9/11 has changed the world that I have yet read.

At a café in Lahore, a Pakistani man tells his story to a sinister Westerner: how he left his home to study at Princeton, took a prestigious job as a management consultant in Manhattan, fell in love with an American girl; and became a figure of hate in the streets after the attacks, facing uneasy looks everywhere until returning to his home. The story is told just as it would be in such circumstances as a first person narrative with the odd interruption (to order food, or comment on passers by). It is a conversation, even though we only hear the words of one participant. This is really convincing, and gives the story an intimate quality beyond that gained from just the use of the first person perspective.

In some ways, The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads like a first novel, particularly given the parallels with Hamid's own life as evidenced by the biographical details on the book jacket. However, it is in fact his second, and there are deeper possibilities in the construction of the novel than the simple use of autobiographical elements. To Hamid's protagonist, America still seems to be the land of plenty, where his intellectual gifts receive the rewards he deserves; but it is never somewhere to which he is emotionally attached: his girlfriend is too unstable, the affection he has for New York is closely connected to the Pakistani element in the cosmopolitan city (the taxi drivers speak Urdu, and he can live near a café which service authentic cuisine from his home). In other words, he fails the infamous "cricket test". His outsider status goes the other way too: there are just two people in America who seem to care for him at all: a colleague, and their boss. Even there, it just leads to a handshake and an offer of a drink when he leaves the company, which is contrased with the general fear and loathing that his "Arabic" features generate in everybody else.

There are nice small touches, such as the first mention of fundamentals, which comes from the management consultancy: "focus on the fundamentals" is described as the company's guiding principle. The reader is left to decide the implications of this for him or herself. Similarly, given the reaction caused by the narrator's appearance in New York, the reader is aware that the Western man in the Lahore café fits the stereotyped appearance of a CIA agent, just as the narrator's appearance is that of an Islamic fundamentalist. Just because he wears a black suit which bulges in places that might cover a hidden holster, doesn't mean that he is an agent. If nothing else, the message of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that appearances can be deceptive.

While the style of the writing is deliberately anti-rhetorical, there are clearly rhetorical elements. Just how much is not clear (and it is another issue that readers can decide for themselves): the narrator could be almost entirely truthful, or almost completely mendacious, or anything in between. However, taken at face value, his story is a gentle criticism of extremism, whether Islamic, capitalist, or just plain xenophobic.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a compelling story, a mature reflection on the times in which we live - and may well turn out to be the classic novel of the aftermath of 9/11.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

John le Carré: The Mission Song (2006)

Published: Hodder, 2007

Since Midnight's Children, the legacy of colonial rule has been a popular choice of theme for literary authors, with at least one novel of this type appearing in most year's Booker Prize short list (and frequently proving less than enjoyable in my annual reading of the books on that list). The Mission Song is le Carré's second novel on this theme, after the interesting The Constant Gardener.

The Mission Song is about the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Congo is, to most Westerners, still Conrad's Heart of Darkness: its colonial and post colonial history among the most troubled on the African continent (see the Wikipedia article on the country). In the east, the Rwandan genocide filled the country with refugees and ethnic tension (there were ethnic Tutsi living on the Congolese side of the border before, during, and after the killing). Remote from Congo's capital Kinshasa, the region seems rife for independence; at least, that is the view of the power brokers who are the subjects of The Mission Song.

The narrator, Bruno Salvador, is (by his own reckoning) a top class interpreter who also happens to come from the region, though his background, as the child of an Irish Catholic priest and a local woman makes him an outsider both in Africa and in London where he now lives. This doesn't prevent him being recruited as a proud member of the British Secret Service - he obviously feels that he is accepted by the establishment and working for the good guys.

It is in this role that he is asked to attend a secret meeting between some of the important regional leaders from the eastern Congo. Bruno, under another name, works as their interpreter, but the meeting's participants are unaware of the full range of languages he speaks, and the organisers also use him to provide fuller translations, including transcripts from bugs planted around the hotel. At the start, he recognises some of the participants and admires the principles they adhere to; but this level of access leads to disillusionment as he is privy to the deals, bribes, and even torture which are used to get final agreement to go ahead with an attempted coup in the region.

It is usual in this kind of novel to dwell on the atmosphere of the country in which it is set (done marvellously in, say, The God of Small Things), but almost the entire narrative of The Mission Song takes place in an anonymous European hotel: this book is about the impotency of those who live in Africa, when the decisions which effect their lives are made in such places. The reader never gets to know the identities of the conference sponsors. Only the early reminiscences of Bruno's childhood are set in the Congo.

While slow moving, The Mission Song grips through the depiction of Salvador, whose name is clearly ironic: he is a passive observer of events, not an actor, and certainly not a saviour. He delights in his job, especially the honour of being asked to join the Secret Service, and le Carré's depiction of his naive enjoyment is entertaining and well done, as is the despair alternating with optimism that is the result of his discovery that men he had previously admired were as venal and self serving as any behind their public image.

There is perhaps not much here for fans of George Smiley, but The Mission Song is an indication of the literary quality of le Carré's work: much better and more thought provoking than most of those Booker shortlisted post-colonial novels.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Joe Abercrombie: The Blade Itself (2006)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

The first book of The First Law is a tale of a brutal world. A declining kingdom now faces invasions from resurgent nations from both north and south, nations which have grievances to settle as well as expansionist aims. Its moribund army is dominated by class privilege, as European armies were until the nineteenth century. Interest is more on the annual fencing competition, which includes several major characters who are former winners or current competitors. Another side of life in the Union is shown by chapters focusing on the work of the Inquisition, which is investigating treason by one of the kingdom's richest guilds using torture and intimidation.

As is fairly common in fantasy, the chapters alternate between the viewpoints of major characters, around half a dozen of them. (This technique is used in the genre because it gives a wider impression of an imaginary world while retaining a personal side.) What is slightly unusual here is that these people are not basically nice with a few character flaws to add realism, but pretty unpleasant on the surface with redeeming features hidden underneath. (Three of these characters are described on the back of the second book, Before They are Hanged, as "the most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union".) This makes the book seem very dark indeed, particularly when the characters are carrying out some morally reprehensible activity such as torture: one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is a senior figure in the Inquisition. His redeeming features include rather more of a sense of justice than his colleagues, as he is convinced at the beginning that the work he does is necessary and that the those tortured are guilty, a conviction that is undermined through the book by the actions of his superiors, and his background, which was as a war hero captured by the Gurkish and tortured himself for two years. His profession will immediately make a genre fan think of Gene Wolfe's classic New Sun series, which had a torturer as its hero, and there are similarities, but Glokta lives in a nastier world and his activities reflect this - parts of The Blade Itself are not for the squeamish. However, he is one of most interesting of the viewpoint characters, and the chapters involving Glokta always seem to raise the quality of the narrative.

The first law, by the way, forbids mages from communication with supernatural beings (the term used, "the Other Side", has a slightly unfortunate resonance of tacky fake spiritualism): something of a problem when all magic however benign does so in a small way. Readers also learn of the second law, which forbids cannibalism; the consequences of this act are a loss of humanity, with the addition of superpowers. The consequences of breaking the first law are not spelt out, but could well form an interesting part of the later parts of this series.

While the nastiness of some scenes will put off many potential readers, The Blade Itself is a well written and interesting fantasy novel (more so for its characterisation than other features), the start to a series that I will want to read to its resolution.