- - Monday, December 23, 2019


By Ted Gioia

Basic Books, $35, 528 pages

Older generations often question the musical styles and tastes of the younger generations.

The great classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s eccentric nature and nonconformity led to him receiving musical reviews like “bizarre flights of the soul.” Jazz music and rock ‘n’ roll were both called the “devil’s music” (or worse) by street preachers and Average Joes alike. Country music’s critics claim it only appeals to rednecks who like twangy songs, while rap music’s controversial lyrics and personalities have been viewed as the coming of Armageddon.

Instead of finding fault in music, which is remarkably easy, there are ways to observe this evolution in a more positive light. Ted Gioia, one of America’s finest music historians/authors, takes on that daunting task in “Music: A Subversive History.” He believes “musical innovation happens from the bottom up and the outside in, rather than vice versa,” and with the passage of time, “whether through co-optation or transformation, the innovations become mainstream, and then the cycle begins again.”

That’s why Mr. Gioia feels “more than ever, we need a subversive history of music.” His quest isn’t to rewrite history or take controversial approaches to “stand out from the crowd.” Rather, society needs to understand why we should “subvert the staid accounts that misrepresent the past as well as to grasp the subversive quality inherent in these catalytic sounds in our time.” In doing so, it will open our eyes to the “real story of music as a change agent, as a source of disruption and enchantment in human life.”

After 25 years of extensive research and examination, he’s accomplished just that.

This whirlwind tale starts from the beginning. How flashes of light and the first hints of sound led the creative musical juices to start flowing. The prevalence of cave paintings containing humans and animals, which often involved hunting, introduced musical chants and songs. The influence of folk tales, myths and lullabies in our love of music. The pervasive themes of sex and/or violence in the Bible’s oldest song, opera and modern sounds.

Mr. Gioia also notes that “music became a quasi-science.” The introduction of science and mathematical components started with Pythagoras’ study of numbers and ratios in musical sounds, which led to a distinction between melody and noise. Other forms of music, including powerful influences from Africa, may have initially sounded different to Western ears but the “algorithmic mindset prevailed, somehow managing to codify non-Pythagorean performance styles that would seem to resist codification.”

There’s also the powerful element of storytelling, from Latin scholars to Maori families.

The art of passing down stories preserved “historical knowledge and religious dogma” and propagated “treasured myths, cultural beliefs, and core learning from generation to generation with extraordinary precision.” Tribal elders in aboriginal communities retained great stories, musical lyrics and, surprisingly enough, scientific knowledge. English literature also factors in, including an intriguing exploration of Harvard classicist Milman Parry’s revolutionary work with his student, Albert Lord. Their research disproved the standing theory that “Homeric epics had originated in a society that lacked writing” and, after speaking with individuals like oral poet Avdo Meedovi, suggested “writing might actually have been a disability to those who invented sung stories.”

“Music: A Subversive History” contains intriguing insights and penetrating discussions related to musical acceptance and criticism.

For instance, the understood principle of music being territorial is explored, and not just as a modern phenomenon. Hostility and suspicion toward musical styles can be traced to the denunciation of harmonicists for their “ignorance and pretensions” by Aristole’s pupil, Aristoxenus, which is similar to modern attacks on jazz and blues musicians. “Biology lays the foundation for music,” the author suggests, “but it cannot comprehend the superstructure social conditions dictate how the game is played.”

Meanwhile, Johann Sebastian Bach is viewed today as a “sanctioned and orthodox insider,” but the brilliant classical composer had “subversive tendencies” in his music, drinking and carousing with women, and was jailed after pulling out a knife in a fight. The slave, seen as “the outsider” with “no allegiance to the conventions and values of the surrounding society,” created some of our most unique and provocative music. And while Christianity “was not hostile to all kinds of music,” early followers were determined to “police, prohibit, and punish singing among the populace.”

Mr. Gioia’s alternative history of music is extraordinary, groundbreaking and bone-chillingly real. You won’t be able to listen to your favorite songs and albums quite the same way ever again. That’s not a bad thing, mind you.

Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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