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The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock. By John Harris. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. 448pp. ISBN 0-00-713472-X



The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock. By John Harris. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. 448 pp. ISBN 0-00-713472-X - - Volume 23 Issue 2 - Adam Behr
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The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock. By John Harris.
London: Fourth Estate, 2003. 448 pp. ISBN 0-00-713472-X
Adam Behr
Popular Music / Volume 23 / Issue 02 / May 2004, pp 224 - 227
DOI: DOI:10.1017/S0261143004220116, Published online: 23 July 2004
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How to cite this article:
Adam Behr (2004). Popular Music, 23, pp 224-227 doi:DOI:10.1017/S0261143004220116
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Popular Music (2004) Volume 23/2. Copyright © 2004 Cambridge University Press, pp. 221–239
Printed in the United Kingdom
Voice of the Magi, Enchanted Journeys in Southeast Brazil. By Suzel Ana Reily.
Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
266 pp. ISBN 0–226–70939–8
DOI: 10.1017/S026114300421011X
Suzel Reily has written a major work exploring the popular Catholic musical
ensembles of south-eastern Brazil. It will have impact on ethnomusicology, social
anthropology and for any study of music and religion. While deftly embedded in
anthropological and sociological theory with a thorough and inspiring discussion of
existing and current literature, it is at the same time an account of fifteen years of
Reily’s own life working with groups of musicians based in São Bernardo do Campo,
the heartland of Brazil’s car industry who come together in their neighbourhood to
form a folias de reis companhias de reis – (companies of kings). As a participant
observer, often playing viola or caixa as an accompanist, she broke the expectations of
the groups themselves by being the first person of both her gender and social class to
be involved with them: their acceptance of her as a reporter’ overcame their own
prejudices as she was called upon at times by them to fill in or cover at the last minute
for core members. Brought up herself in São Bernardo in an American Methodist
missionary family, Reily has been formally investigating Brazilian popular Catholic
traditions since 1982 and freely admits her initial appreciation of the exotic other’, the
seductive poetics of popular Catholicism and the methodological problems inherent
in any ethnography of the ‘familiar’, i.e. the challenges of defamiliarisation and other
cultural baggage (pp. 21–2).
Brazil is one of the largest Catholic countries in the world with seventy-five per
cent of the population admitting to devotion to the Church. Reily’s study is one of the
few that looks at popular Catholicism, a highly localised affair with immediate
links with the lives of devotees. The companhias de reis are a musical ensemble of
predominantly low-income workers who perform during the Christmas season in
various regions of Brazil particularly in rural communities. As Reily explains in the
preface, they enact the journey of the Wise Men to Bethlehem and back to the Orient,
moving from houseto house as they sing to bless the families they visit in exchange for
food and money. The offerings they collect are then used for a festival on 6 January,
the day of the King’s. This day is of course popularly celebrated in many Spanish-
speaking countries in the Americas as it is in Spain, and in many is celebrated with
greater significance than Christmas itself. And, as Reily asserts, Today folias have
become a common feature of many peripheral neighbourhoods of the country’s large
urban centres, brought by thousands of migrants who have flocked to the cities in
search of a better life’.
One of Reily’s pertinent observations on her first visit comes when she finds out
that those taking part are also active trade union officials. The first key question that
she ponders really underpins the whole book, How can such activists be prepared to
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take up guitars, tambourines and drums decorated with coloured ribbons and plastic
flowers during the Christmas season and sing endless ditties before the manger scenes
in their neighbourhood?’ The initial answer for one of them (a leader in the metal
workers union) lies in the promise of his mothers (promessa) to the Three Kings on his
behalf when he was a child giving him a lifelong obligation to sing for them each year.
While on one level such obligations to the saints exist in order to have their protective
power, there are many more levels involved.
Reily divides up all the material, ethnography and observations and analysis of
her fifteen years into nine sections. She offers an appendix of musical examples, notes,
glossary and bibliography, and a lovely gallery section of black and white photo-
graphs of the kind my mother keeps in an old biscuit tin many decades old, i.e. poor
black and white reproductions. How I wish publishers had the budgets to treat
photographs as the documents they are, giving them the size and attention they
deserve, as in the coffee table’ finish of photography books. In the twenty-first
century with DVD and CD-Rom, it seems a crying shame that publishers cannot invest
in this documentary side of research.
Whingeing and wishful thinking over, this study works wonderfully on many
levels. Chapter I, Preparations’, works as both an introduction to the book and an
account of what is involved in the first stages of folia preparation each year as everyone
meets and begins to get ready for the journey which will start around 24/25
December. In chapter II, Folias’, Reily discusses the historical background of the
tradition: from descriptions of the musical styles of the groups she works with to
mobility and settlement patterns and economic life from the colonial era to the present
day. In chapter III, Banners’, the hierarchical structure of folias is examined. In chap-
ter IV, Rehearsals’, conceptions of music and music-making and the social relations of
musical production are embedded in a rich ethnography revealing the significance of
sociability. Chapter V, Departures’, looks at the ritual that launches each journey and
examines how this redefines the social sphere while simultaneously constructing a
scared space different from the everyday world. It also shows beautifully how indi-
vidual biographies are integrated into the collective memory of the community
through shared representations of the repertoire. Chapter VI, Adoration’, focuses on
the mythic repertoire of the tradition and the way differing narrative accounts mesh
with the moral values of the participants. Chapter VII, Visitations’, looks at ritual
exchange and the deep significance of reciprocal traditions, while Chapter VIII,
Arrivals’, looks at the final festival which ends the final journey bringing together the
participants with local people of their community.
Reily’s premise is that the apparent naiveté and innocuousness of the folia de reis
tradition provides a cover through which folias have been able to safeguard their
cultural capital while the folklorisation of the tradition has allowed for the creation of
spaces for its performance in the wider public area. In the final chapter IX, ‘Visions’,
she argues that in contrast to official Catholicism, in the popular Catholic realm the
continuous communal re-significance of religious representations maintains a degree
of coherence between religious life and daily experience and aspirations. Thus
enchantment provides a means of organizing communal action in a manner which
re-create religious ideals allowing devotees to visualise themselves within a divine
moral order. From the margins of society, the infra-political realm of popular
Catholicism allows the Brazilian underprivileged classes to periodically reinvent the
universe in terms of their understanding of God’s natural laws and thereby to create
and sustain a vision of an equitable social world’ (p. 26).
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Thus, through a close and detailed history of the ritual journeys’ of the folias and
the musical performances they involve, we are shown the creation of sacred spheres’
which are both distinct from the participants’ everyday world while still intimately
linked to it. This is the practice of enchantment’ which gives the title to the book: it is
a mechanism that allows the folia community involved to temporarily realise the social
ideals of reciprocity and equality embodied in their religious belief, and in their real
lives refracted through their union ideals. The fact is that the daily lives of these
materially impoverished workers is mediated through with their religious practices
and thus reinforces their religious convictions.
What is memorable about the writing is Reily’s ability to grip the imagination of
the reader by starting each chapter with an oft amusing or provocative anecdote
which thereby acts as a springboard, metaphor or template for what is to unfold.
These linger in the memory so that, for example, several weeks after reading the
Banners’, I have this vivid picture of a cow eating a banner, the result of excessive
alcohol consumption during the journey, when in actual fact I have in reality seen
neither cow nor banner nor indeed been to these folias! (p. 64). Banners are central to
the tradition and identity of a group without which they cannot proceed, and a new
one must be found before they can continue.
Reily’s approach acknowledges that all ethnography is only a partial
representation of what is there, and is guided by what she calls a holistic ideal of
radical empiricism’; it is in this way that she attempts to give insight into ways the folia
community construct their experiences of fragmentary wholeness through the
contradictory coherence of their enchanted realities. It is precisely because of the
localized nature of popular Catholic practice that their religious life can keep pace
with all aspects of daily experience; each time devotees stage a ritual, they engage in
the intense processes of negotiation, bringing the shared symbolic repertoire of the
tradition to bear upon their contemporary lives’.
Her theoretical analysis is guided by various key figures, including John
Blacking, Victor Turner and Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s dynamic and radical vision
altered the way Brazilian anthropologists have looked at the lower classes and
their lifestyles, seeing human beings as historical agents actively involved in the
construction of their own destinies’. He defined folklore as expressions of world and
life of the subaltern classes, and he saw popular Catholicism as a sphere for the
articulation of the morality of the people (1985, p. 193) rooted in their notions of
natural law’ (p. 9). Gramsci differentiated the concepts of natural law of the Church
with those held in the popular domain and argues that people continuously renew
their common-sense categories expressed in their popular traditions in accordance
with the pressures of real living conditions and spontaneous comparisons between
the ways in which the various social strata live’, appropriating into a mosaic of
tradition’ a confused agglomerate of fragments of all the conceptions of the world
and life that have succeeded one another in history’ (p. 9). Where others before her
have focused on symbolic repertoires and normative ritual processes reflecting
a rather static and essentialist representation of popular Catholic ethos and
subaltern morality, Reily’s own focus is on the intense processes of negotiation and
resignification of commonsense categories so integral to Gramsci’s ideas (p. 10).
And so we follow the process whereby year upon year these groups regenerate
themselves to carry out a ritual journey and celebration whatever the historical,
social and political circumstance they are part of, and by doing so in the process
are themselves re-generated as individuals and a group and a community. Reily’s
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concluding section, Enchanted Visions’, is a wonderful synthesis of her material,
powered as it is by John Blackings vision of all communal music-making as inherently
political coupled with his inspiring words on being torn between concern for the
world as it is and as it might be’ (p. 230).
In the structuring of her work, envisioned in her chapter titles, Reily achieves
something ethnographers dream of but rarely achieve: that is, the narrative structure
of the book reflects the content it is both engaged with and recounting, i.e. it parallels
the annual procedures of the folias: so we start with ‘Preparations’, which doubles as
an introduction, and end with Visions’ by way of Folias’, Banners’, Rehearsals’,
Departures’, ‘Adorations’; Visitation’ and Arrivals’. It is customary in a review to
ferret out any weaknesses in a text and its arguments. I found that impossible to do
here, save that it is at times a little dense. Reily’s perspective may not be one shared by
sociologists of popular music or even musicologists, but they will surely find it
persuasive and it may inspire their imagination: Through the divine power of
enchantment, a transformation is effected that lasts for the duration of the journey: the
world becomes more colourful, adorned with flowers, ribbons and shiny paper, it
becomes more poetic and more musical through the performances of the folia; there is
space for clowning and joking, which enhance the atmosphere of sociability within the
ritual frame; food and drink for all become abundant. People are transformed by their
direct contact with the Magi: they become more joyful and predisposed to give of their
time, their talents and their limited possessions in order to heighten the experience of
communion with the saints’ (p. 223). Such humanity as witnessed in this book is as
humbling as it is ennobling: Viva os Três Reis Santo! . . . Viva toda a companhia’
(p. 147).
Jan Fairley
Institute of Popular Music
University of Liverpool
The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock. By John Harris.
London: Fourth Estate, 2003. 448 pp. ISBN 0-00-713472-X
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004220116
The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock by John Harris is, to some
extent, a book of contradictions, covering a lot of ground while taking a narrow focus.
It provides a primarily journalistic account of a moment in British cultural history. In
the mid- 1990s the mass media adopted the sound of a few bands as representative of
a rejuvenated Britain whilst today’s UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, then the leader of
a strong opposition to the incumbent Tory party, utilised this air of patriotism by
allying the British Labour party to the youth cultural phenomenon that had come to be
known as ‘Britpop’.
Harris hitches his study of a cultural phenomenon onto a more directly engaged
account of the music at its centre. In doing so he applies a narrative structure to a
considered and thematic account of developments in Britain’s cultural and political
history. He hangs his case upon key incidents such as the visit of musician Noel
Gallagher’s to the prime-ministerial abode at Downing Street and the UK music
media’s enhanced battle for the number one chart spot between Blur’s song Country
House and Oasis’s Roll With It during the summer of 1995. Harris’ remit is wide,
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encompassing changes in the political climate, the shape of the British music industry
and detailed accounts of the careers of a number of UK bands (with particular
emphasis on Blur, Suede, Oasis and Elastica).
The titular Last Party’ refers to the period, in the mid-1990s, when bands
sporting a distinctively British aesthetic and drawing in particular on the work of
1960s UK acts like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Small Faces, had wrested
dominance of the pop music charts away from North American ‘grunge’ acts. At the
same time, a revitalised British Labour party celebrated a return to prominence and
then to power. As with many such historical epiphanies, the moment at which they
come to be labelled, in this case as Cool Brittania’ and, more specifically to the music
industry, ‘Britpop’, often marks the onset of a decline.
Central to this book is the thesis that the groups that defined Britpop’ ended
up cutting the British indie rock tradition loose from its ideological and aesthetic
moorings. Indie rock in Britain had, in the wake of punk and throughout the 1980s,
taken an oppositional stance to the mainstream music industry and the government.
The project of forging a sound for British rock that did not derive from recent
North American music also included, as one of its primary criteria, the necessity for
chart-based financial success.
Harris contends, however, that once the more creative minds had turned away
from blatant commercialism, what was left was a celebration of Britishness for its own
sake. Bereft of the creative spark that had produced an alliance between contemporary
pop practice and an appreciation of its cultural history and context, British rock music,
he argues, is stuck in a conservative and conformist rut. This is compounded by the
dilution of rock’s revolutionary’ stance resulting from members of these young bands
sipping champagne with the Prime Minister.
As Harris says, . . . five years after Britpop slid into insignificance, it
frequently seems that the mainstream is all there is . . . Britpop may have elevated
the alumni of the 80s indie milieu to an unforeseen popularity. But it also seemed to
pursue a scorched earth policy – and once the smoke had cleared it became obvious
what had been lost . . . British musicians seem to have reached unprecedented
depths of compliance and timidity . . . As with politics, music seems to have long
since ditched the vocabulary of revolution, and opted for isolated, incremental
change’ (pp. 370–3).
In keeping with its broadly journalistic methodology and style, The Last Party
relies heavily upon interviews with the protagonists, many of whom seem better able
to appreciate in retrospect, away from the hurly-burly of media attention, the creative
forces that led to the success of bands like Oasis and Blur in the first place. This is aided
by Harris’s reflective style, which throws into sharp relief the hyperbolic statements
made at the time. Particularly telling is an account of the rave reviews for Oasis’s
Be Here Now, an album to which history and hindsight have been less than kind, which
expands outwards from a portrait of Oasis’s own hubris and touches upon a more
general tendency for rock bands and scenes to create mythologies which they cannot
live up to.
As Harris writes, In all the responses to Be Here Now, one could detect an
age-old syndrome. Its advocates seemed to be driven not by the album’s merits but by
a massed desire to maintain Oasis’s myth and thereby prolong the delirious fun that
had started three years before . . . hyperbole was hurtling away from reality, driven by
a force that was all its own. By the end of the year, the praise hurled at Oasis would
look deeply misplaced’ (p. 341).
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Throughout Harris displays a welcome and surprisingly engaging attention to
detail which fleshes out rather than swamps his narrative. He manages to successfully
depict the careers and travails of his primary case studies, including grizzly accounts
of romantic triangles, drug addiction and intense personal rivalries, without lapsing
into salaciousness, prurience or hagiography, but also without reducing the stories to
a dry recital of the facts.
He is less thorough in his account of the political developments of the time,
although this is perhaps forgivable given that his emphasis here is on the politicians’
use of, and effect upon, popular music rather than their wider agendas. Whilst The
Last Party does not provide a detailed analysis of the Labour party’s move away from
the left, it does offer an insight into the populist tendencies and personal predilections
which made the courting of rock stars in the pursuit of votes a natural manoeuvre for
Tony Blair. In light of his subsequent PR-driven style of government, the accounts of
Blair’s days as a rock performer at university are both entertaining and revealing. In
Harris’ words, Ugly Rumours [Blair’s band] took to the stage – or rather the lawn –
after performances by an all-female string quartet and a local trad jazz band, dressed
in candy-striped jackets and straw boaters. Unbeknown to his colleagues, Blair had
the idea of allowing them to join the group in an impromptu celebration of musical
togetherness. Such were the first stirrings of what is now known as Blairist inclusiv-
ism’ (p. 158).
If Harris’s book is occasionally somewhat episodic, veering between descrip-
tions of developments in the music industry and the evolution of the political land-
scape, this is perhaps the inevitable consequence of trying to elucidate a moment of
collision between two seemingly disparate spheres of activity. To the extent that he
does examine the British music industry, however, greater mention of other musical
developments of the time – (trip-hop’, drum n’ bass’, the continued success of
dance music and the world-conquering Spice Girls, for instance) – would have been a
welcome addition. He mentions that the reclamation of the Union Jack from the far
right and the rise of a fashionable and fashion-led patriotism were not limited to
Britpop’. But although he does well to place it in the historical context of punk, rave
music and ‘baggy’, he is less assiduous about examining it alongside the plethora of
other British music that was also heard in the 1990s. This is somewhat mitigated by the
thoroughness with which he covers the Britpop’ bands and the fact that his argument
pertains to indie rock’ music in particular. Nevertheless, the spotlight rests almost
exclusively on white British rock and greater attention to other genres might
also diminish the sense of a British popular music that is now languishing in the
imaginative doldrums.
Overall, his style is commendably entertaining and expressive, providing a neat
balance between the subjective and the descriptive. His turn of phrase and sketches of
people, such as Tony Blair participating in Labour’s Youth Experience Rally’ wear-
ing, ‘...adeeply nervous grin, like an over-eager teacher embroiled in a playground
snowball fight’ (p. 304) help to imbue the book’s compelling narrative. Likewise, his
frequent recourse to material gathered from extensive interviews allows the music
industry personnel to appear as three-dimensional human beings rather than just
stock caricatures in a musical scene. This is particularly effective during his account of
the decline of Britpop’ from artistic endeavour into drug-fuelled indulgence and the
subsequent reinvention of some of its more creative proponents.
If Harris allows his own musical preferences to inform his argument then,
ultimately, this does not sit at odds with the thrust of a book that lays no claim to
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academic objectivity and is, above all, highly readable. Similarly if The Last Party is
shot through with an implicit sense of the betrayal of the left in Britain both musically
and politically, it is always clear and well argued without lapsing into strident
polemicism. Eventually this means that the book succeeds equally as a cautionary tale
of both the standard pitfalls of rock excess and the more insidious dangers for
musicians and politicians alike of building reputations and careers upon fashionable
totems instead of ideological or aesthetic principles.
Adam Behr
University of Stirling
Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value. By Julian
Johnson. Oxford University Press, 2002. 140 pp. ISBN 0-19-514681-6
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004230112
Classical music has greater value than other music, even if it is liked by few people,
even if it has come to be associated with patriarchy, with wealth, privilege and class
divisions. This is the polemic posed by Julian Johnson in his extraordinary book, Who
Needs Classical Music?
The idea that classical music is in crisis will be familiar to those who are engaged
with it, but perhaps less familiar to those for whom classical music is simply one
cultural choice among many. From this latter perspective, the idea that classical music
is suffering a crisis’ is simply the petulant and bewildered cry of a small elite who
used to have the unquestioning support of the power base but which now fears
relegation to the status of one-among-many. In defence of classical music, Johnson
argues for its distinctive value, claiming that it does things which other cultural forms
do not do, just as those other forms do things which classical music does not. Part of
this distinctiveness, he claims, is classical music’s ‘self-conscious attention to its own
musical language’. Johnson’s argument rests on the idea of music itself’: that there
are objective differences between musical pieces and between musical styles, and
these articulate different values. Music is therefore not an empty sign for other
things despite, Johnson claims, having been taken as such by some branches of the
sociological study of music. According to Johnson, classical music has a richness of
meaning which is in opposition to the uses to which it is often put. Classical music,
he argues, embodies ideals of Enlightenment humanism: individuality, freedom,
self-identity expressed in a collective whole’. Classical music affords the experience of
valuing something in and for itself, and therefore to participate in this sense of being
valued. It is for these reasons, he claims, that we need classical music.
The debate about the value of classical music will be familiar from discussions of
the public funding of the arts, and of educational curricula, but they are faced head-on
here and pursued in valuable depth. For example, the idea that music has objective
values and that some people are better equipped through educational processes to
make judgements on behalf of other people, will be offensive to many. But Johnson’s
argument is based not only on claims of this music’s inherent worth, but on justifica-
tion for it based on a particular idea of what constitutes value’. If music is about
pleasure, self-identity and expression then there are few grounds for claiming the
authority of particular value judgements, but if its significance lies in its relationship
with society, then knowledge and skill are needed to make such judgements,
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authority can be justified, and public funding on the arts can be defended – or at least,
according to Johnson’s argument.
The idea that classical music might espouse values different from those of other
music also warrants serious attention. Johnson highlights the dangerous confluence of
market forces with the characterisation of contemporary culture in terms of multi-
plicity and plurality, arguing that it has encouraged reception practices in which
products become interchangeable. He argues that the functional expectations of
popular culture have come to dominate so that they become the expectations of all
music, even though classical music was shaped by different functions. Claims for the
uniqueness and ‘difficulty’ of classical music inevitably lead to accusation of elitism.
By way of a rebuttal, Johnson argues that the charge of elitism is a symptom of a
pseudo-democracy, where anti-elitism is used to refuse opportunity and deny
intellectual aspiration. Johnson turns the tables on those who would claim that
classical music is elitist and asks the reader to consider what is anti-elitist about
denying people the opportunity to become acquainted with different repertories of
music and listening practices.
There is much to admire and provoke in this book, but two aspects seem
particularly problematic in relation to popular music and are problems shared with
the Adornian theory to which it is indebted. One danger is that the book reproduces
the unhelpful dichotomy between art and popular music which has dogged reception
of Adornian theory. Johnson defines classical music as ‘music that functions as art, as
opposed to entertainment or some other ancillary or background function’. This
allows for a definition of music based on use and function (in relation to material
characteristics), rather than on stylistic divisions. This seems to promise an approach
which could tell us something about critical’ and uncritical’ music and the criteria
used to make such judgements, rather than the valuing of different genres. However,
the examples Johnson mentions are drawn from Western concert music (that is, after
all, the focus of the book), and as a consequence what emerges is the familiar equation
drawn between classical music and critical music, and between popular music and
uncritical music. In addition, the definition of popular music as a set of musical uses
and functions rather than a musical style’ reinforces traditional ways of approaching
popular versus classical genres which neglect their musical materials and forms. By
failing to delineate the central terms in sufficient depth, Johnson is in danger of
over-generalising from Western chart-based hits and implying that popular music is
not self-conscious about its musical materials and forms.
A second problem inherited from Adornian notions of the relation between
music and society is an assumed identity between production and consumption. This
is the argument that individual choice is constrained to what the market makes
available and is too easy to rattle off in the absence of empirical evidence. Although
independent record labels, and amateur music-making are not free from market
influences, their existence counters the idea that individuals’ choices are determined
solely by the products made available by commercial organisations. As twenty years
of cultural studies has shown, products do not determine meanings and uses, and
music is process as well as product.
The potential offensiveness of the book lies not just in what is said but in the
manner of its saying. In this respect it embodies the very principles it espouses for
classical music. Absence of referencing and footnotes enhances the engagingly direct
style, but use of the plural pronoun we’ and our’ positions the reader as complicit
with Johnson’s views and assumes an identity between author and reader. One view
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would be to read this mode of address as an unthinking acceptance of the complacent
rhetorical conventions of an earlier version of academic discourse. However, this
mode of address is congruent with the argument for the objectivity of musical
qualities and values, which, Johnson claims, are not simply his, but are universally
Johnson’s stated purpose is not to reinstate classical music to the elevated
position from which it appears to have fallen, but to ask what classical music might do
for us and why it might be worth our attention. As Johnson points out, for some
people classical music has now come to be associated so strongly with patriarchy and
class divisions that for many there simply isn’t anything sufficient left for it to have
redemptive power. In addition, classical music’s uniqueness, according to Johnson,
lies partly in its refusal of the everyday. However, by refusing to partake of the
everyday, by virtue of its autonomy of musical forms and materials, it risks making
itself irrelevant to the very sphere to which it opposes itself.
A major criticism of the book, and of the position which it represents, is that its
justifications for the distinctive value of classical music remain elusive, distributed
through the text and often appearing as homologies between musical and social
processes (for example, the interaction of the separate voices embodies a musical
analogue of the perfectly balanced community’ [p. 67]). Until the values that are
distinctive to classical music, and how these are realised in its material form, are
spelled out much more clearly, the claims to greatness made for classical music will
continue to be taken as either complacency or a conviction born out of ignorance of
other cultural forms rather than as critical insight. While this sets a clear agenda for
proponents of classical music, the burden for understanding lies both with those who
would make the case, as well as those who would dismiss it.
This book will be offensive and shocking to many but it warrants serious
engagement rather than refusal. Read it and discuss the issues it raises as widely as
possible because it offers the opportunity for serious debate about music and its
relationship to the way we live our lives.
Nicola Dibben
University of Sheffield, UK
Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.ByRuy
Castro, trans. Lysa Salsbury. Chicago: A Cappella, 2000. 372 pp., discography,
glossary, index, photos
Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil. By Caetano Veloso,
trans. Isabel de Sena. New York: Knopf, 2002. 354 pp., glossary, index, photos
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004240119
The two books discussed here are recent additions to the growing body of Brazilian
music in English. The first treats bossa nova, the samba derivation invented in Rio de
Janeiro in the late 1950s and early 1960s that reached audiences around the world
through the song A garota de Ipanema’ (The Girl from Ipanema’). The second treats
the music known as tropicália, a pop rock genre of Brazilian music that began in Bahia
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and flourished in São Paulo in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though the latter did not
score any single international hit, its recent revival outside of Brazil attests to its
lasting appeal. What makes the reading of these books together so interesting is that
they make clear how interrelated the musics’ histories are, even though they sound so
little alike.
Whereas bossa nova was a reaction against the gloomy lyrics of samba-canção
(e.g. Waiter turn out the light/Because I want to be alone’) and the music of the
big-throated crooners of 1940s–1950s radio, like Lúcio Alves, Orlando Silva, Dick
Farney and even Frank Sinatra, tropicália was in part a reaction against the nasal,
self-absorbed singer-songwriters of bossa nova, typified by João Gilberto, and their
tireless lyrics about the sun, the beach and the music itself. Gilberto and António
Carlos Jobim, the best-known stars of bossa nova, admired the operatic jazz belters;
they felt that their music and lyrics, however, did not relate at all to their generation.
Tropicálias biggest stars, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, for their part, acknowl-
edged their debt to bossa novas singers, musicians and composers; but, like the
generation before them, they felt a major musical change was needed to artistically
represent the reality of their world.
Both styles of music were conceived of as movements by their main
practitioners, though tropicália began with greater organisation, uniting visual artists,
poets, musicians and actors. Both were rejected by the media initially (though bossa
nova caught on with the mainstream much more than tropicália ever did) and ridiculed
by established musicians and journalists as lacking any of the creativity or artistic
merit of previous musical trends. Bossa nova and tropicália musicians themselves
were met with hostility, derision and indifference by large sectors of the Brazilian
listenership. How hard it is to imagine today how delicate songs like Corcovado’
(Quiet nights and quiet stars . . .’), or the strumming of Veloso’s guitar and his James
Taylor-like voice could incite outrage in audiences!
Ruy Castro spent many years as a music journalist and columnist for Brazilian
magazines and newspapers, during which time he saw from a close distance’ the
inner and outer workings of bossa nova. His book is written with great detail, a broad
scope, a strong personal voice and humour (Would it be possible to one day forgive
Baden [Powell] and Vinícius [de Moraes] for popularizing the berimbau, the most
annoying instrument in the world after the bagpipes?’ [p. 231]). The myriad anecdotes
are a rare treat for aficionados of bossa nova and fans of Brazilian music in general:
it is possible to create a kind of family tree of who played with whom when and where,
and what they recorded on what label under whose direction and with what
musicians. Musicologists may be inspired to go back to the early bossa nova hits, such
as Samba de uma nota só’ (One-Note Samba’) and Desafinado’ (Off-key’) to
determine what it was about bossa nova’s interpolations of samba’s rhythms and its
harmonic extrapolations that made it a true musical innovation. Casual listeners will
certainly benefit from the discography, enabling them to go beyond the countless
collections of ‘biggest hits’ which tend to differ one from another only through their
song sequencing order and angle of the cover photo of the statue of Christ
the Redeemer. I found it particularly interesting reading today, given the recent
resurgence of interest in bossa nova: any local music store’s well-stocked Brazil
section will have more than a dozen discs of originals, remixes, versions and new
Veloso, one of Brazil’s most prolific and influential musicians over the last
thirty-five years, has given us an intensely personal book that details his country’s
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political history, the artistic movement of tropicália and an insider’s guide to his and
Gilberto Gil’s careers from their origins in Bahia through their return from exile and
musical break with tropicália in the early 1970s. Veloso’s candour about his difficulties
as a musician, his fears as a provocateur, his sexuality and his admiration for his
comrades, chief among them Gil, makes him a sympathetic storyteller. The book reads
at turns like a novel, an autobiography, a historical work and a cultural analysis of a
musical movement. For those readers unfamiliar with the subject, tropicalismo
(the movement’s name) made Brazil the nexus of everything: a place to mix popular
music from Europe and the US with popular music from Brazil; fashion from Paris
with indigenous Brazilian ‘fashion’ (stereotyped images of Brazilian autochthonous
cultures); technological advancements with primitivism; art with food and religion.
‘In tropicalismo (in the wake of anthropophagy), there is a tendency to make Brazil
exotic as much for the tourists as for Brazilians. No doubt even I myself reject what
seem to me ridiculous attempts to neutralize the strangeness of this Catholic tropical
monster, in the hunt for the crumbs of ordinary international respectability’ (p. 159).
What results is a short-lived, syncretistic orgy of symbols, sounds and sensibilities –
taking the form mainly of music and performance – determined to simultaneously
upset the complacency of 1960s nationalist artistic expression and the repressive order
of military dictatorship. In doing so, the artists wanted to carve a new path that
married commercialism, because of its appeal, with fun, thoughtful, internationalist
art. Eric Hobsbawm, in his comments on our brief twentieth century’, has written
that, between the wars, in the field of popular culture, the world was either American
or provincial . . . This is a reality that the tropicalistas would not wish to deny. Much
less would we wish to confront it with melancholy’ (p. 183). Instead, they wanted to
destroy the dichotomy. The movement lasted officially just one year, from 1968 to
1969, but its practitioners continued experimenting in similarly audacious veins for
some years. Like bossa nova, tropicália has experienced a renaissance, making the
reading of Veloso’s book a great way to understand the story behind the music and
make its listening that much more pleasurable.
Neither book is perfect. Castro’s suffers at times from excessive and hyperbolic
foreshadowing, with statements like this song would change the world forever’.
Veloso overdoes self-effacement, as when he says, [T]oday I am recognized above all
as the author of some songs written in the mid-seventies and afterwards’ (p. 320). On
the other hand, he admirably asks difficult questions of himself, such as, Now that the
days we call heroic have passed, I have to submit all of my pretensions to a question:
to what extent did my opportunity for shining as a great figure of MPB [Brazilian
Popular Music] depend upon the drop in demand for quality incited by that same
wave of supposed popularity that I helped to create?’ (p. 144).
The main shortcoming of both books is that unfortunately for musicologists and
musicians, neither Castro nor Veloso attempt to address the music itself in any
illustrative way, which is a great pity. Both authors generally approach the music
through the lyrics, particular performances, stylistic decisions or technical conditions,
which means that there is work yet to be done.
Jesse Samba Wheeler
UCLA, Berkeley, California, USA
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The Cambridge Companion to Singing. Edited by John Potter. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000. 286 pp. ISBN 0-521-62709-5
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004250115
Our voices are us’. With this sentence, contained in the first lines of the introduction
to The Cambridge Companion to Singing, John Potter summarises the idea that stands as
the leitmotif of the volume, namely the aim of exploring the enormous diversity of
singing traditions found across the world, each of which invariably responds to an
essential necessity that all humans share: that of expressing their inner selves.
In an attempt to cover the various singing traditions that pervade Western
culture, the volume is organised into four parts – Popular traditions, The voice in the
theatre, Choral music and song and Performance practices – which, in turn, are subdi-
vided into a series of self-contained chapters. Each of these is devoted to the difficult
task of providing the reader with a general overview of the historical evolution, the
technical characteristics and most influential groups or soloists in each of the analysed
styles. It must be said that the dominant comprising aims of the volume give rise to a
somewhat erratic structure, leading the reader from world music to rock, rap and jazz,
and from there to opera and choral music.
Making a conscious effort to leave behind what has today thankfully become an
obsolete assertion – that only classical singing is valid as an aesthetic and technical
model – the first part, Popular traditions, undertakes an in-depth exploration of several
of the most significant popular music traditions in the world. One of the most
interesting chapters in this section is the one written by radio programmer John
Schaefer. It deals with so-called world music’: from India to Turkey, Zimbabwe to
Cuba, Armenia to Australia, this chapter traces the various song-lines’ found
throughout the non-Western world. It also covers the impact that some of the
exponents of such traditional music, like the Bulgarian Women’s Choirs or Pakistan’s
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, have exerted on Western mass media in the last years.
The remaining three chapters of this first section lead the reader through the
singing languages of rock, rap and jazz, concentrating on their origins, as well as on
some of the most relevant singers in each field. In ‘Rock singing’, Richard Middleton
emphasises the idea of authenticity’ as the basis on which the style is grounded.
According to Middleton, this idea can be further divided into two groups of
characteristics: On the one hand, natural expression’, individuality’ and directness’,
meaning the kind of non-affected, quasi-spontaneous quality that is said to be the
essence of rock singing; on the other hand, narrativity’, gesture’ and intoned
expression’, referring to the particular interrelation between words and melody that
has pervaded rock music from the beginnings of the genre.
In The evolving language of rap’, musician and journalist David Toop explores
the ‘hybrid’ quality of the style, which places itself in between speech and song. This
hybridity is directly linked with the tradition of storytelling historically inherited by
black Americans, and with the primarily vindicating nature of the genre. These two
characteristics are essential in order to understand why rap is much more than a
musical style. As Toop puts it, the evolving language of rap ‘has played a significant
role in the general acceptance of black dialect and African-American oral culture’.
Last, in Jazz: the first hundred years’, John Potter begins by acknowledging the
fuzziness of the term jazz’ itself: even jazz singers find it very hard to define the word
except in terms of itself’. This idea is linked to the conception of jazz as musician’s
music’, which refers to the thoroughly exploratory nature of the genre, and thus the
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difficulty of finding a specific, never-changing definition for it. Towards the end of his
chapter, Potter makes an important remark on the present female dominance of the
genre: The new fin-de-siècle generation of jazz singers is very much a female,
post-feminist one’. As a conclusion, he discusses the two evolutionary directions that
jazz singing may follow in the future, either a sentimental one’, or the path of
The second part, The voice in the theatre, deals with stage music, starting with
musical theatre and films, and moving on to classical opera. The ordering of the
chapters in this section might be a bit disconcerting for any reader approaching this
discipline for the first time. The first chapter, Stage and screen entertainers in the
twentieth century’, by musicologist Stephen Banfield, covers the performance
practice of singing entertainers as a vital component of the mass culture of its
period’. Banfield’s chapter relies on two previous studies in the 1970s. He uses three
types of source material for performance practice, namely recordings, film, and
written and spoken documentation, and divides the evolution of stage entertainers
into what he calls two shifts’: the first has to do with issues of class – the classical
trained voice is replaced by the popular trained one – and the second, with age and
gender – the male adolescent and the girlie woman become the central figures on
stage; this second shift is importantly characterised by the incorporation of the
microphone into stage acting. One of the originalities of this chapter is the final
list of historical recordings, which works as a listening guide both for the expert and
also for the newcomer.
The second and third chapters, by opera specialist John Rosselli, analyse an
earlier period in stage music, starting from the beginnings of opera in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, and finishing up with the grand opera figures of the
nineteenth century. In Song into theatre: the beginnings of opera’, Roselli explores the
two mainstream opera traditions – Italian and French – that emerged in Europe
around 1670, as well as the modern figure of the opera singer’. In Grand opera:
nineteenth-century revolution and twentieth-century tradition’, Rosselli renders a
very interesting summary of the principal opera composers and works in Europe from
Rossini’s groundbreaking Guillaume Tell to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
The third part deals with Choral music and song. In the first chapter, European art
song’, opera singer Stephen Varcoe defines art song as a style intended to be
accompanied by a keyboard (. . .) Secondly, the poem (. . .) should have been chosen
not only for its suitability as a song, but also for the composer’s ability to identify with
it and to express its meaning in an individual manner (. . .)’. Varcoe explores the
evolution of this eminently vocal genre starting with the German Lied of Schubert and
Schumann in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, going on with the works of
Mahler and Strauss in Germany, Saint-Saëns and Bizet in France, and finishing up
with the more contemporary works of Debussy, Satie, Poulenc, Britten or Schoenberg.
The subsequent two chapters provide an overview of sacred choral tradition in
England and the United States. Both the author of English cathedral choirs in the
twentieth century’, Timothy Day, and the author of Sacred choral music in the United
States’, Neely Bruce, agree that the most important characteristic of these choirs is the
particular singing style they have, married to a purity of tone, accuracy in intonation,
precision in ensemble, and absence of rhetoric’, and, in the case of American choral
music, married also to a great amount of multicultural influences.
The fourth and last part, Performance practices, is an overview of singing
techniques and performance practices in different times, as well as a teaching guide.
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Of these, the first one, Some notes on choral singing’, by Finnish conducting
teacher Heikki Liimola, is addressed to the conductor of a potential choral ensemble.
It concentrates on vocal exercises which could be helpful when facing an ensemble
rehearsal, from warming up techniques to some psychological hints that, according to
the author, any conductor of a singing ensemble should take into account.
The second, ‘Ensemble singing’, by John Potter, the editor of the volume and a
member of the vocal groups the Hilliard Ensemble and Red Byrd, concentrates
specifically on certain techniques of classical ensemble singing, or consort singing,
that is one voice to a part’. Potter focuses on three main points of interest, namely the
basic procedures during consort rehearsals, the sound of the ensemble, and some
of the techniques used in early music singing: a huge amount of repertoire for
ensembles comes under the heading of early music’. The subsequent three chapters
concentrate on the historical evolution of singing techniques from the Middle Ages to
the Romantic era, and from there to contemporary times.
The voice in the Middle Ages’, by Joseph Dyer, covers the theoretical
conception of the human voice during the Middle Ages, as well as some of the most
important singing treatises written during that period. In Reconstructing
pre-Romantic singing technique’, Richard Wistreich explores the evolution of singing
techniques in Europe during the period extending from the sixteenth century to the
eighteenth century. Just like the previous chapter, this one also concentrates on some
treatises written during this period, focusing on what was said to be a good voice at
that time.
Linda Hirst and David Wright close this subsection on the evolution of singing
techniques with a chapter called Alternative voices: contemporary vocal techniques’.
The most particular characteristic of twentieth-century singing is, according to the
authors, the conscious separation from the dominant stream of bel canto: Certainly the
rich, almost bewildering, variety of written and improvised styles that has now been
opened up, as well as the opportunities for these styles to interact in new and fertile
ways, point to the fact that vocal quality can be just a freshly or differently expressive,
away from the constraints of bel canto style’. The chapter highlights the fact that,
nowadays, vocal pieces are often based on the collaborative work between composers
and singers themselves, in such a way that the spectrum of techniques and repertoire
opens up to innumerable possibilities.
The subsequent two chapters are pedagogical, and deal with the teaching and
learning of singing. In the case of David Mason’s The teaching (and learning) of
singing’, the reader is faced with a concise and very useful overview of the pedagogy
of singing from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century. In Children’s
singing’, Felicity Laurence proposes and explains some basic techniques that may be
useful when rehearsing children’s ensembles. As she puts it, all children can sing,
learn to sing better, and have the right to do both’.
The last section closes with the chapter Where does the sound come from?’,
written by Johan Sundberg. This chapter offers a scientific view of the act of singing
which works as a perfect complement for the dominantly musicological character of
the volume. As Sundberg puts it, this section provides the reader with a system of
solid information about singing’ which offers the possibility of supplementing the
understanding of singing by physical, tangible facts’. These facts, thoroughly ex-
plained in this chapter, have to do with the generation and control of voice sounds by
breathing patterns, the function of the larynx in the process of phonation, and all the
phenomena related to resonance.
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What the general reader might miss for the volume as a whole is a general
conclusion, so that it could be clearly understood as a unit with a specific goal. Also,
the specialised reader might be left wondering about the practicalities of such a
comprehensive volume; it is my view that it would be much more interesting and
illustrative if it was accompanied by a CD with a sample of each singing tradition dealt
with in the book.
One aspect that makes the reading slightly difficult is the fact that the footnotes
are listed altogether at the end of the volume, which makes them awkward to follow.
The book also lacks an explanation of the technical terms presented in the different
chapters, which makes it a more potentially difficult read for non-musicians. As a
positive point, the fact that each chapter is conceived independently – there is
a different writer for each one – makes it easy to read for those who want to focus on
a specific singing style.
The Cambridge Companion to Singing will interest singers, students of music,
concert goers and the general public who will find it a good travel book’ in the sense
that it provides a good overview of singing traditions found worldwide. This series is
one of the most interesting ideas to have come out into the market in recent years.
Rosalía Rodríguez-Vázquez
University of Edinburgh
Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats. By Fredrick J. Spencer.
University Press of Mississippi, 2002. 311 pp.
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004260111
Jazz and Death is an instantly provocative title that sets the imagination searching for
possible topics. And there are many of them, including jazz music and the commercial
death of many musicians, not least Derek Smalls and company from Spinal Tap. Then
there is Jazz music, music of the devil’, a music that consigns both the listener and
practitioner to the fires of hell and damnation. There is also jazz as a music that leads
musicians into a seamy world of drugs, criminality and death. It is this final stereotype
that comes closest to the topic of this book, which presents medical profiles of jazz
greats in its aim to dispel some of the myths and inaccuracies that surround the
passing of many jazz superstars. The key point therefore is that this text is written
from a medical perspective rather than an ethnomusicological one. As a result, its
contents are divided up into sections rather than presented in chapters with the author
giving each class of ailments a section to itself. Major causes of death such as cancer,
cardiovascular disease, substance abuse and mental illness are presented alongside
some incongruous sections such as dental disease, mumps, food poisoning and
influenza. Homicide, perhaps for obvious reasons, gets a section to itself.
The author, Fredrick Spencer, outlines quite clearly at the start that his aims are
to be precise and accurate when reporting the medical profiles of jazz musicians with
the goal of correcting many of the errors of previous writers, while shedding more
light on some particularly famous cases. He also hopes that the text will inspire more
historical research into the lifestyle of famous jazz musicians. The book is undoubt-
edly scholarly and it is clear that the research has been executed and reported
meticulously. Moreover, the author’s medical background certainly lends the whole
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book an air of authority in all matters physiological. His passion for jazz is also
evident: this text reads as if it is written by a medical doctor with a deep passion for
jazz music. In short, I think Dr Spencer can rest assured that his book achieves the
object of bringing the medical and jazz worlds together.
One of the reasons I was particularly drawn to reading this book was learning
more about the somewhat morbid stories (apocryphal or not) that jazz musicians
themselves like to tell during the downtime at gigs, between songs or at rehearsal.
Indeed, taking a very broad-brush interpretation of this book, which is definitely not
what the author intends for his readers, I learn that just about all of these stories are
essentially true. Lee Morgan was indeed shot by a jealous partner in a night-club
(appropriately called Slugs) during a gig. Wardell Gray’s body was discovered in the
Nevada desert in ambiguous but certainly drugs-related circumstances. While the
author does discuss Chet Baker’s dental problems, inflicted by drug dealers who
knew where to hit a trumpet player when he owed them money, the well-known
anecdote that he fell to his death from a window in Amsterdam, is told later in the
book. Hearing, once again, of the utterly tragic circumstances surrounding the death
of Jaco Pastorius was particularly moving. Here was the most influential electric
bass player of all time, a man who took fretless bass playing to its lyrical and
improvisational zenith, living as a down-and-out and then beaten to death by a
night-club doorman. These and many more vignettes, including details surrounding
the deaths of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Mingus, are
presented within a context where emphasis is on the medical and physiological.
Indeed, the extent to which the fine details of some medical conditions are
explained may well strike many readers as somewhat bizarre or, if I am being entirely
honest, downright ludicrous. For example, the author gives vast amounts of detail
regarding the physiological features of syphilis and seems to relish telling a most
bizarre story of syphilis transmitted between one particularly unfortunate couple. In
another section, a photograph of ‘The Tonsil Guillotine’ is accompanied by captions
and diagrams detailing its use during tonsillectomies. We also get considerable detail
about the finer points of eye disease and ear infection. Of course the author would
countenance that these details are crucially important within a text focused upon
detailing medical profiles of jazz musicians. Perhaps herein lies a problem with the
book because I think these highly technical descriptions will only be of interest to
readers with a specialist medical interest.
The book certainly complements some previous medical writings on jazz and a
recent paper by G.I. Wills called ‘Forty lives in the bebop business: mental health in
a group of eminent jazz musicians’ (2003, The British Journal of Psychiatry, 183,
pp. 255–9) which discusses the relationship between mental illness and jazz
musicians. One case in point is worth discussing here. One of the pioneers of early
jazz, indeed some say the ‘inventor of jazz’, trumpeter Buddy Bolden, spent the last
twenty-four years of his life incarcerated in the Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana.
Spencer’s research provides a detailed and illuminating account of some key features
related to Bolden’s life. His sensitive approach contrasts with a more controversial
claim made by S.A. Spence who, in his paper Dementia Praecox and the birth of jazz’
given in 2001 at the Royal College of Psychiatrists Summer Meeting, proposed a
causal relationship between Bolden’s improvisational virtuosity and a supposed
schizophrenia-related cognitive impairment. Of course, Michael Ondaatje’s book,
Coming Through Slaughter (1979, Picador, London) provides a truly inspirational and
party fictional account of Bolden’s life and death.
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Does the book shed any light upon the much-talked about causal link between
jazz music and unhealthy life styles that ultimately lead to a variety of problems
including mental illness and drug addiction? The answer here is an emphatic no.
However, this is not a weakness of the book but rather an indication of the inextricable
and multifaceted link between performers’ musical and personal identities and the
socio-cultural milieu within which they live (see R.A.R. MacDonald, D. Miell and
D.J. Hargreaves, Musical Identities, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
In summary, I found this book a very curious read. Fascinating and moving in
places and overly technical in others. There can be no questioning the author’s
dedication and gargantuan effort in pulling together a text of this nature. If you have
a fascination with the idiosyncrasies of medical ailments of the jazz greats then this
book is definitely for you. In addition, academic researchers will certainly find many
interesting and thought-provoking points of reference in the book. It could certainly
serve as a valuable reference text to be dipped into when the time is right. Moreover,
the casual reader with an interest in biographical details of jazz musicians will find
many of the vignettes fascinating. However, reading the book in its entirety from start
to finish left me thinking that perhaps I don’t have a deep enough interest in the finer
points of medical science to fully appreciate or be inspired by it.
Raymond MacDonald
Department of Psychology
Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
How Popular Musicians Learn. By Lucy Green. Aldershot and Burlington:
Ashgate, 2001. 238 pp. ISBN 0-7546-0338-5
DOI: 10.1017/S0261143004270118
Lucy Green’s latest book has been on the shelves for only a year or two, but already
feels like a necessary part of music education literature. The book raises many
questions: notably about the relationship between pop music and other genres;
classroom and instrumental teaching; the connections between listening, performing
and composing; and the balance between teaching and learning in acquiring and
valuing performing skills. In her small-scale study of fourteen popular musicians,
Green does not claim to be able to provide definitive answers in each of these areas,
although she does make some practical suggestions for teachers that offer much
potential for future research.
How Popular Musicians Learn is written in a clear and accessible style, avoiding
the theoretical and technical language of Green’s earlier books (Music on Deaf Ears,
1988; and Music, Gender, Education, 1997) and taking care to explain terms and
practices that may be unfamiliar to various sections of a potentially broad readership.
There is extensive use of lengthy interview material, bringing the participants alive in
an engaging way, but there is some repetition of quotes which weakens their impact
and interrupts the narrative style. I would like to have heard more of the author’s
voice in interpreting the data: interview quotes are often presented without comment,
or with only brief summaries of the ideas they include. Where Green does point out
the subtleties of language used by interviewees, or the differences between their
viewpoints, there are brief moments of greater analytical depth, which readers are
generally left to construct for themselves from this ‘hands-off’ approach.
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Green is careful throughout to acknowledge the continuum between informal
and formal learning, and in the introductory chapter she draws on non-Western
cultures to illustrate alternative models to formal schooling. One of the central themes
of the book is that despite this continuum, there is often a disjunction between the
musical education provided in classrooms or instrumental lessons, and the musical
needs of the pupils involved. The focus here is on that disjunction as experienced by
popular musicians, but this work reveals the potential for further investigations of
children’s perspectives on their music education. Like Patricia Shehan Campbell, who
in Songs in Their Heads (1998) found evidence of learning taking place between –
perhaps even despite of – the activities led by a class music teacher, Green has
consulted the learners rather than the teachers to give a fresh perspective on the
acquisition of musical skills. This ought not to be a revolutionary step, but research in
music education has been remarkably slow to value children’s perspectives, tending
to study the outcomes of their learning rather than how they experience the processes.
The methods of Lucy Green’s study are perhaps more contentious than her
research focus: data are drawn from interviews with fourteen popular musicians aged
between fifteen and fifty, all living in and around London. This is therefore a small-
scale study with the associated limitations of this approach, but Green outlines her
reasons for working this way in a clear and straightforward account of her methods,
stating that she continued her interviewing well past the point when ideas were being
repeated by different respondents, and illustrating throughout the book that her
findings are consistent with those of the established literature. Fourteen interviews
does seem a small amount of material from which to make a book; but then again, it is
a great deal more empirical evidence than many musicological texts present, and
offers a much richer picture than, for example, any large-scale questionnaire overview
could provide. To simply demand more data before believing in this study would be a
rather superficial response, but the book’s strength is not so much in delivering an
understanding of how popular musicians learn in general, but rather in the insight
given on how these particular people have understood their learning histories. The
title perhaps promises too much, and the different expectations brought by readers
from education, psychology and sociology, as well as musicians of all kinds, mean
that some will inevitably be disappointed. It is unreasonable, however, to blame
Green for that; the problem is not what this book does, but that so much remains to be
Given the historical tension over the roles of popular and classical music in the
school curriculum, it would have been easy for this book to reinforce those hostilities
and misunderstandings by setting one genre against the other in familiar circular
debates. It is refreshing, therefore, to find not just the author but also her interviewees
expressing respect and interest for all kinds of musical approaches, and actively
seeking connections between the self-directed learning that these popular musicians
have engaged in, and the educational provision they have been offered in school. The
descriptions of school music lessons given by the older participants are shaming: very
few report any positive or memorable learning, and most recall feeling alienated
from the classical, theoretical focus of the curriculum. The views of the younger
participants come in the next chapter, so leading the hopeful reader to anticipate the
happy ending of improved provision for the younger interviewees, who had attended
school since the reforms of the National Curriculum and the GCSE. The picture that
comes across initially is not so rosy: there is over-use of the keyboard, continued
reliance on the dynamism (or otherwise) of individual teachers, and an inconsistency
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in the variety of musical genres that find their way into the classroom. However,
where the older generation of pop musicians had found no place for their enthusiasms
in the classroom, their younger counterparts reported submitting pop compositions
for their GCSE portfolio, even if these were tolerated rather than actively taught by
their teachers. Younger musicians also seem keen to foster the connections between
their music-making in and out of school, so countering some of the well-established
fears in the music education literature (including Green’s earlier work) that teacher
involvement in pop music is necessarily uncool and undesirable.
Green ends with a discussion of educational implications, with ideas that
include incorporating ‘purposive listening’ (listening with the intention of learning)
into classical instrumental lessons, and building similar techniques into classroom
music lessons by sending small groups of instrumentalists into practice rooms to copy
a recording. She admits that these approaches would need trial and research in
classrooms. They would also need to be done with conviction by teachers, which
might represent a greater challenge, especially as even the teachers amongst Green’s
interviewees make little use of their own learning techniques with their pupils. Green
notes that teachers want to feel responsibility for the learning that takes place in their
classrooms, but proposes valuing new roles for the teacher, including offering
encouragement, praise, opportunity, resources – all more important, at least to the
pop musicians interviewed here, than traditional teaching patterns of intervention
and externally imposed control.
Returning to this book a year after I first read it, I have found new aspects of
interest and value, as well as much which has quickly become familiar and helpful
to educational discussion. Lucy Green has navigated the boundaries of academic
disciplines and musical genres with great skill: I would recommend this book to any
reader with an interest in musical learning, as the questions it raises should provide a
stimulus for developing practice and research in many new and potentially fruitful
Stephanie Pitts
Department of Music
University of Sheffield
Reviews 239
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