Monday 23 May 2022

Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music - David Stubbs (2018)


Rating: Excellent

Mars by 1980 has been my book to read as I've been recovering from a hip replacement, and it's been exactly the right choice (you get good at this as you get older...). It's fascinating and well written, but not too demanding when the ability to concentrate is compromised. I do know and love a reasonable amount of electronic music, but this book has filled in many gaps in an engaging and interesting manner. In the preface Stubbs admits that the book is not an exhaustive history of the genre, which is just as well as it would have to have been an encyclopaedia, such is the genre's lengthy history and ubiquitous twenty first century presence. The genre's history begins in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, with the invention of such machines as the pianola (1895), and then the exotically named Telharmonium (1906) and the Intonarumori (1910). Part one was perhaps the most fascinating for me, going from the above mentioned inventions through to the pre WWI Futurists and then onto avant-garde electronic composers such as Edgard Varese, Pierre Schaffer, Stockhausen and John Cage. It was rewarding to read about these innovators and at the same time listen to their compositions via You Tube, a recommended approach for anyone wanting to read this book. Although overall the book is a linear history, Stubbs does jump back and forth in time a bit, which is fine. Stubbs also offers a somewhat personal and subjective perspective, recounting his initial exposure to electronic musical works, which proves to be an effective and engaging approach throughout.

Perhaps the real strength of Mars by 1980 is the quality of Stubbs' writing, which is witty, erudite and perceptive. There are never lulls or boring sections to contend with and Stubbs' subjective opinions are never intrusive or excessive in tone. Stubbs evades any criticism of not even trying to be comprehensive by making what he does cover really count. He gives in depth attention to black musical artists who were trailblazers, such as Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, as well as female artists, such as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, who worked at the BBC in the 1960's. Derbyshire produced the Dr Who theme, which became one of the most famous electronic works within mainstream awareness for quite a while. Perhaps the most enjoyable chapters for me personally were 'The Art of the Duo' and 'Substance', both of which covered electronic music in the 1980's when I was a teenager. So, a nice glow of nostalgia for me as I contended with getting my new hip into gear. Stubbs also examines ambient music, 1990's rave culture, the dominance of sampling and then EDM (electronic dance music) in the twenty first century. Along the way he deftly examines the push and pull between black and white music and the associated question of authenticity, such as when white artists become funky by sampling the work of black artists (hello Moby). Mars by 1980 is much more than just a selective overview of electronic music, it also stands as an almost anthropological examination of twentieth century culture, which, in doing so, strongly gives the impression that the invention of machines that allowed humans to compose electronic music was a highly significant development in human artistic endeavour. Recommended for music lovers who are both curious and adventurous, and really, why not be both?

Monday 2 May 2022

The Little Friend - Donna Tartt (2002)


Rating: Sublime

The Little Friend is an incredible novel, but before I get into just why I need to point out that this does not mean that everyone will enjoy it. The novel disappointed some of Tartt's many fans after the sublime The Secret History (1992), which is one of those special novels that are revered with a cultish intensity. A hard act to follow then, and it doesn't help that The Little Friend is a world away from the university setting of Tartt's debut. Also Tartt takes her time to set the scene, establish the characters and engage in some world building; for example, after the prologue, nothing much happens for fifty plus pages. We are introduced to the Dufersnes family, some twelve years after the nine year old Robin Cleve Dufresnes was found dead, hanging from a tree in the front yard. Among the ensemble of characters, including three aunts, parents, friends, housekeepers and pets, we meet Harriet Cleve Dufresnes and learn that the trauma of her brother's death has resulted in a sad and dysfunctional household. Initially it really seems that the novel just consists of endless dialogue and descriptions of domestic scenes, coupled with a slow pace. However, via the twelve year-old Harriet, who is intelligent, intense and wilful, you are drawn irresistibly into the decaying  small town gothic American south of the mid 1970's. Harriet becomes determined to find and punish whoever killed her brother, and thanks to information provided to her by the family's hard-done-by housekeeper, Ida, she fixates on local red-neck meth-head Danny Ratliff, whom, along with his brothers, are the toughest criminal element in town. Once Harriet and her only friend, Hely Hull, set out to track down Danny the novel really takes off, becoming totally absorbing and engaging. Of course, as with all great novels, you need the set-up for the pay-off to really work, so any requirement of patience and work on behalf of the reader is well worth it.

The Little Friend has been criticised for being something like a Nancy Drew mystery, but this is totally misguided criticism. The novel is very adult, incredibly compelling and the writing is absolutely brilliant. Tartt really is a superb writer of fiction and her descriptive powers are endlessly astounding. When Tartt sets a scene you are really there with the characters, who are all fully realised creations, including the many minor characters. I truly believe that Tartt is one of the most talented writers to ever put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard?). The tension that Tartt builds throughout the novel is almost unbearable, I had to keep putting the book down to take a break. On the other hand I have never laughed so spontaneously and so loud and long at a scene that involved a cobra, a skeletal old grandma called Gum and an open-top Trans Am, and the thing is, I'm not even sure if it was meant to funny! The novel is also very dark, filled with despair, malevolence, bathos and paranoia, playing out like a TV series made by David Lynch, but without the supernatural elements. There are also some of the most brilliant set pieces I've ever read, like when Hely eavesdrops on a tense scene in a seedy pool-hall and the intense scenes when Harriet and Hely break into a house containing boxes of poisonous snakes owned by a travelling snake-handling preacher. The Little Friend is filled with such moments, it was a novel I desperately wanted to get to the end of so I could find out what would happen, yet I also didn't want it to end because it was so enjoyable. It's an extremely clever novel in that it doesn't give up its secrets too easily, you need to wait till near the end to find out who the title refers to, and as for some of the other mysteries, I'm not saying anything lest I spoil things for new readers. Oh, and Donna Tartt, it's been nine years since your last novel was published, given your publishing record the new one must be due next year, I certainly hope so.