Sound Within Sound by Kate Molleson review – a challenge for classical music guardians | music books


Ohen Radio 3 presenter and critic Kate Molleson was a child, she took her Fisher-Price tape recorder to bed, hugged it like a security blanket, falling asleep to Monteverdi madrigals. His love for Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky followed soon after; then his interests shifted to ambitious modern composers, many of whom weren’t Western, male, white, or in any history books.

In this smart and accessible collection of essays, Molleson lays out his case for 10 such artists, saying their work is still sidelined due to a “strange and false fear”: that inclusivity threatens music. classic. “No one is saying that we should abandon Mozart or Mahler,” continues its powerful preface. “I would be the first to fight if someone did.” Instead, she questions the “guarding and building of walls” in classical music and how issues of genre, country of birth and class affect ideas about how certain composers were, and continue to be assessed.

Classical music, she argues, desperately needs diversity to survive: “Stagnation will be the death of any living art form…a healthy musical culture depends on who plays, who listens, who is truly impacted.” To support this mission, sound in sound takes us on a whirlwind international tour.

It introduces us to exciting dreamers of the last century who believed that music could fundamentally – and disruptively – recalibrate our lives. In Mexico, we meet Julián Carrillo, the youngest of an indigenous family at 19, who becomes a composer obsessed with the possibilities of microscopic intervals between tones (in simple terms, the many small gradations of sound between two notes on a keyboard).

Music using such microtones could create a mystical realm that would open people’s minds, Carrillo believed, to “access new answers that were visceral, unfiltered, futuristic”. Filipino composer José Maceda had another dream in the 1960s: a composition involving thousands of cars, causing different parts to explode as they race down highways, creating a participatory musical experience.

It never happens, but an hour-long play Maceda wrote in 1973, Ugnayan, for 20 radio stations it’s happening, played by transistor radios all over the country in homes, public places and parks, people moving around with their portable machines so that the sounds blend and intertwine.

Kate Molleson: “enthusiastic style and sense of character”. Photography: David Grinly

These stories could easily get bogged down in musical jargon, but Molleson’s enthusiastic style and sense of character and place bring them to life. The international influence of her book is particularly convincing when she travels: when she is in “dusty, nervous and noisy” Jerusalem to meet Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 93-year-old bedridden Ethiopian pianist and former nun, or among the ” fierce yellow golds” from the hometown (St. Petersburg) of Molleson’s refugee grandfather as she explores the brutal dissonance of Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya.

Many of these artists come across as fascinating, almost cinematic characters. Walter Smetak, an influence on Brazilian pop music in the 1960s, is a “taciturn, gritty buckaroo from Bahia”. During one of American free-jazz composer Muhal Richard Abrams’ last concerts, Molleson captures his physique in energetic and propulsive phrases. “It lingers in the lower octave and then bursts upwards. His fingers climb up the keyboard as if he were speed climbing a cliff.

Injustice plays a part in many tales, including the life of Ruth Crawford Seeger, mother of famous folk musician and singer-songwriter Peggy, with whom Molleson spends a fascinating and eye-opening day. The first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work and an innovative modernist composer, Crawford Seeger’s talents were consistently ignored by her husband, who was previously her teacher. “He wasn’t as good as her,” Peggy said bluntly.

We see a letter that Crawford Seeger sent to his brother in 1945: “Throughout the housework I was thinking about books I could work on,” she wrote. She became an internationally known transcriber and arranger of traditional songs, but did not write another modernist piece until 1952; she died a year later of cancer.

sound in sound makes us realize that there was so much more music by people like her, more music that was never finished, written or performed. It also focuses our ears on the bright things that survive, encouraging us to dig deeper and keep listening.

Sound in sound: Opening our ears in the 20th century by Kate Molleson is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


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