Undue Noise: Words and Music
By Andrew Ford
Rec. price: $27.95
Andrew Ford’s music journalism is better known than his compositions, but more lastingly momentous than either of these endeavours is Ford’s achievement (much documented at the time it occurred, though largely forgotten since) as an apostle of violence.
To astonished guests at a 1990 musicology symposium, Ford – then, as now, a Wollongong University lecturer – assured an opponent that “the rest of us are going to take you out and kick the **** out of you”: language rarely if ever before heard on such occasions, and thus (it might have been assumed) of some mild cautionary interest for those collegiate administrators to whom Ford nominally answered.
Given this background, it follows that Ford’s subsequent productions will retain pathological interest, if no other type; and Undue Noise is no exception.
Undue Noise comprises recycled book reviews, CD reviews, pre-concert talks and newspaper features from the mid-1980s onwards.
Such heterogeneous origins would with other authors ensure incoherence; but for all Ford’s ostentatious parade of eclecticism, everything in this book is recognisably by the same hand, for better or for worse.
While much of this material predates Ford’s bizarre 1997 tract, Illegal Harmonies, (surely the worst prose nominally concerned with music since Andrei Zhdanov’s 1948 addresses to the USSR’s Central Committee), Undue Noise differs from Illegal Harmonies in at least being periodically worth arguing with.
Its author can turn a memorable phrase, as in Illegal Harmonies he manifestly could not do. He can here, moreover, combine his phrase-turning with serious discernment.
There is a beguiling description of Elgar’s First Symphony, “adorned with florid violin writing that leaps and frolics like a shoal of excitable dolphins” (p. 88).
He asks intelligent questions concerning variations in performance practice within a few decades (why have renditions of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs tended to become slower and slower?); concerning why Ken Burns’ TV series Jazz, mesmeric in parts, dissatisfies him as a whole; and concerning the principle, for want of a more candid term, which persuades once-scrupulous book publishers to churn out New-Age-poppycock like Michael Hayes’ The Infinite Harmony. (“How”, Ford wonders [p. 182], “does such twaddle get published? Have they sacked the editors at Weidenfeld & Nicolson?”).
He writes entertainingly about – mainly by quoting (p. 294) the effusions of – a Bob Dylan hagiographer called Paul Williams, whose demented grovelling transcends the parodist’s art: “We’re just so lucky to have this music. It’s a privilege. And an inspiration . . . Me, I’m just so happy I could cry”.
These virtues cannot, however, compensate for the manifest absurdities of Ford’s world-view: in its stylistic expression so tough-minded, and yet deep down so chicken-hearted.
Any reader of Ford’s subtitle would, if he were unfamiliar with Ford’s other work, automatically expect some attempt at historiographical comprehensiveness. No such luck. (Merely to call the reader “he” is, incidentally, to goad Ford into near-Stalinist rage: on p. 162 he castigates British broadcaster Antony Hopkins for “incessant and unreconstructed [sic!] use of the male form of the personal pronoun”.)
Excepting one platitude-fest for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s demise – and occasional references to such oddities as Glenn Gould’s piano recordings of Elizabethan keyboard pieces – Ford demonstrates not the slightest interest in any music written before 1750, and precious little in any written before 1850.
Imagine a library that, whilst refusing to stock any pre-1850 world literature, nevertheless continued to pride itself on its expertise.
Not even the grubbiest Dawkins-created degree-factory would be so impudent. Yet Ford considers his own analogous amnesia not merely licit, but indispensable.
For Ford himself, such amnesia has two advantages. First, it enables him to pretend that almost the only worthwhile non-theatre music written between 1900 and 1950 comes from Schoenberg and his school. (Most non- or anti-Schoenbergians during this period, however eminent, receive embarrassingly short shrift in Ford’s pages: precisely one reference each to Rachmaninoff and Hindemith; no references at all to Respighi; and so on.) Secondly, and more importantly, it enables him to brandish his own atheism as a banner of truth: in a way that he would find impossible if his musical universe centred upon – or even adequately acknowledged – the 250 years up to Bach’s and Handel’s deaths.
He cannot, and seldom attempts to, discuss the Renaissance and Baroque without braying his Rationalist Association banalities.
Regarding Bach, he assures us (p. 46) that “I am personally unencumbered by religious belief”: a strange choice of verb in the circumstances. (Shades of the mad professor in Paul Micou’s novel The Music Programme, who dreams of proving to the world that Bach was an atheist desperately concealing his atheism under elaborate codes. Once again, reality long ago outflanked satire.)
One wonders how Ford can pretend to appreciate Bach – and Bach’s precursors, whether Lutheran, Catholic or Calvinist – at all, since to these composers Ford’s aesthetic attitudes were not merely unacceptable but unimaginable. (Bach flatly described his creative aim as “none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”)
Meanwhile – for example, on p. 164 – Ford drops occasional hints that at least one degree-factory might no longer live up to even his own standards: “My students believe that T. S. Eliot is the man who wrote the words to Cats and that Schoenberg composed Les Misérables“.
The spectacle of Ford as Frankenstein, desperately alarmed by the spectacle of that post-literate adolescent monster which his own taxpayer-funded positivist clowning has helped to create, is among the present volume’s few moments of genuine (if unconscious) humour.