The Music of the Future, Robert Barry (Repeater Books)
Robert Barry’s book is the most exciting book on music I have read for a long time. It looks back over the last few centuries to discuss and contextualise how musicians have imagined and conjured the future of music, shocking and electrifying audiences with their abstraction, noise and systems. Some of this was publicity and sleight of hand (nothing changes!) – Barry is good at considering how traditional Wagner’s music is, despite his reputation for composing difficult and avant-garde music, rooted in standard musical notation, keys and forms.
Elsewhere he looks at what was proposed but not achieved in manifestos, fiction and writing, and also how digital and online music is not quite what was previously imagined by the likes of Muzak et al who were in many ways the embodiment of historical fictions about piped music for all. He also briefly discusses how ‘the album’ is in many ways defunct since we can each download the individual tracks we like. But many critics have done this, and this is more a book about time, imagination and ambition, with an underlying question about who is imagining (or even making) music in the 21st century for our future.
The book is divided into 3 main chapters, each rooted in a specific year – 1913, 1852 and 2079 – with a Prelude, two Intervals and a Coda wrapped around them, each of these a more personal reflection and narrative from recent times. Each chapter’s date, however, is only a marker to start and root the discussion, Barry’s text roams widely through the centuries, making intelligent and provocative links and associations to underpin his discussions. If I have any gripes it’s that I wish it roamed wider in the late 20th century and early 21st century. It mentions Sun Ra and some contemporary musicians, but rock and jazz feel like an aside here, the discussion is mainly rooted in the classical music world, although that includes contemporary and experimental classical composers, including the likes of Stockhausen and Ligeti, as well as considering musique concrete and the Futurists.
It would have been interesting to have followed associative chains from Ligeti (a main player here) through the soundtrack to 2001 A Space Odyssey, which I suspect is where most people would know his work from, and beyond, and also link to the works of the English composer David Bedford whose own musical compositions were inspired by and drew on Ligeti’s music, but who also worked with the likes of Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield. These links between popular and classical music seem as important as some of the other links Barry highlights. But maybe that’s another book?
I hope so. The book Barry has written is succinct (168 pages plus a bibliography), clear, readable and thoughtful (but not overtly academic or specialised) and well argued. It thankfully doesn’t reach any grand conclusion or finale, but it does provoke and question the reader through it’s carefully structured and diverse discussions and arguments. There are, it seems to me, composers and music makers around the world imagining and desiring something different, even writing about it. I hope Barry will continue his search and hunt them down, then write about them as enthusiastically and informatively as he has here.
© Rupert Loydell 2017