Avant Garde by Robin Maconie - review

by Rod Biss / 17 January, 2013
Robin Maconie embraces the avant garde – and encourages us to do the same.
Avant Garde by Robin MaconieSo much to tell, so little space – a mere 309 pages for all the facts, opinions and sidetracks Robin Maconie crams into Avant Garde, reaching out beyond what his subtitle, An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez, suggests.

Maconie can be stimulating, searching and provocative on music and much else. It’s that “much else” that makes him stimulating. It’s his distaste for any complacent listening that makes him provocative. It’s his searching mind that produces sentences that start with Mozart’s Magic Flute and by way of Captain Cook and Sydney Parkinson end up at James Cameron’s movie Avatar.

It all makes for “high alert, keep your eyes on the logic” reading, so don’t let your attention wander for a second or you’ll need to read each sentence again, and then again with reference books, a good library and a stiff whisky close by.

The 16 essays in the collection are loosely connected by Maconie’s interest in the cutting edge of contemporary music together with the philosophy and science that aids, supports and occasionally dismisses it. Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and John Cage are the stars of Avant Garde. But as well as them, he writes about Stein, Alfred North Whitehead, Oliver Sacks and countless others. Maconie makes surprising connections.

What has Boulez got in common with Peter Jackson? They share a first name, Pierre and Peter; Boulez conducted Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth and Jackson made a film of JRR Tolkien’s Ring in Wellington. Those almost flippant similarities are, I guess, just to grab our attention, as the real meeting of these minds lies for Maconie in their interest in the latest technology at the service of art: Boulez with IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris and Jackson with Weta Workshop.

Maconie is always excited by recording technology and electronics. He tells of the US leading the world in an “information science revolution” in the 1950s and how Stockhausen, in particular, benefited from that. He also takes us back to earlier experiments that are often overlooked: the piano rolls made by Debussy, Mahler and Rachmaninov and Percy Grainger’s experiments with “moving clusters on a piano roll a generation before Stockhausen attempted to do the same for a live pianist”.

From the Founding Fathers to the latest fantasies of Hollywood, Americans have been seeking out ways of communicating, and music has plenty to offer here. “Music,” says Maconie, “is the oldest and most experienced of the diplomatic arts; the cradle of bonding rituals, belief structures and identity ceremonies from the dawn of time to the present day, and from the cry of the newborn to the last gasp of the tyrant.” The chapter on non-musicians Stein – described as “the Florence Nightingale of modernism” – and Whitehead tells how they puzzled over the “nature of time” and the new technologies of the day, and how their thinking eventually fed into the avant garde music of Cage and Babbitt.

In “How Not to Listen”, the essay that may be closest to Maconie’s heart, he quotes Cage saying to anyone put off by modern music, “In that case, don’t listen.” The truth, though, is that both Cage and Maconie want you to listen, and the point they are making is that by actively “not liking” it you are, in fact, already listening.

This chapter, with its taunting title, takes one well beyond that. Stravinsky found much to admire in Stockhausen’s Carré in particular, and in his notational and formal skills in general. Maconie would like us to follow Stravinsky’s lead and accept the challenge of Stockhausen’s innovations. “I happen to enjoy being musically challenged,” Maconie tells us, “and by Stockhausen, in particular.” But we already knew that.


Rod Biss is a Listener classical music writer.
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