Andrew Ford, Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive, Collingwood: Black Inc, 2015, 240 pages, paperback (also available as ebook)
The received wisdom, when I was a university student, was that Primitivism, as a musical movement, was exceptionally short-lived. As a final offshoot from the nationalist interest in the historical past and the musical alternatives of folk music, its fascination for composers was snuffed out by the First World War, leaving us with just a handful of masterpieces, The Rite of Spring at its apex. The news disappointed me, since The Rite was, obviously, one of the most powerful musical experiences I had felt, and I wanted more of it.
As it turns out, this judgment upon Primitivism was a harsh one, and premature. The Primitivist urge didn’t really die quite that suddenly, and simply through the continuing application of curious interest, I was able to trace the thread of its inspiration over the years to uncover more works that got me fired up like The Rite did: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Markevitch’s Psaumes, Boulez’s Rituel, Xenakis’s Oresteia and Persepolis, Varèse’s Arcana and Ecuatorial…
Andrew Ford has been on his own “intrepid quest for the lost thud and the lost scream” as this book’s back-cover blurb puts it. Pointing out how uncomfortable the word has become for us because of its association with demeaning concepts of ‘tribal cultures’ and so forth, Ford usefully returns the term to respectability by pointing out its reference to the primary and the primal.
The concept of primitivism Ford applies is extremely broad, ranging well beyond the confines of the music-history version of Primitivism, to encompass music from all sorts of places, genres and periods. It works well in providing a fruitful basis for Ford to give us a lively commentary on a wide range of his musical enthusiasms. The book does not attempt a sustained exploration of the concepts and meanings of primitivism, but uses it, simply, as a ‘tag’ for a coming-together of assorted music and musicians who seem to have something basic or raw in their music. Ford’s concept of primitivism is not very thoroughly defined, nor is there any intensive exploration of its historical and philosophical resonances, but that’s not the point: it’s a heading for a collection of musical introductions with loose ties to a sort of earthy-dancey-rhythmy theme (or is it a motif?).
In particular, the ‘earthy’ theme provides a useful catch-all for Ford to gather together a selection of his radio interviews from The Music Show. His fans from the radio are likely to be the main readership for this book too, I assume. The kind of people who ‘may not know much about classical music,’ but like to hear things that stimulate their ears and then match these listening experiences to ideas, stories, histories and anecdotes that are illuminating and informative. Ford, with his broad range of musical knowledge and interests, is able to supply such matches liberally. It is just the kind of function that classical music needs more of, and that there seems to be some craving for out there in a world where music has been reduced to a commodity and sundered from its framework of meaning. We need people who are willing and able to find ways to re-attach music (particularly classical music) with its meanings, or who can reveal new ones.
Ford’s hero, the late Wilfrid Mellers, was a master of the revelatory insight, making original connections across musical genres and shining a light on works and composers in a way that could give us a reason to really appreciate them. Revelatory insight is not easy to conjure like Mellers was able to do, but Ford has the ability and easy-going style to introduce the concepts and connections fundamental to appreciation for a broad readership.
The featured interviewees of the book are Richard Barrett, Martin Bresnick, Karin Rehnqvist, Liza Lim, Pauline Oliveros and Brian Eno. Because their inclusion here is opportunistic, the selection seems almost random. That is to say, Ford does not set out to examine a hypothesis with the thoroughness of an academic researcher, but rather has gathered together a set of interviews with composers he’s interested in. Rehnqvist is a composer not previously known to me, but a worthwhile discovery, and the treatment of Bresnick and Lim from a primitivist point of view will surely help many readers to appreciate them. I confess I don’t quite get how Brian Eno’s music relates to the theme (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has a primitivist flavour I suppose), but I did find his comments interesting. Interesting as they are, none of these featured people is particularly likely to excite the musical imaginations of a broad new listenership, however, and perhaps there could have been an opportunity to more fully exploit the book as a means to introduce new listeners to music that will be more familiarly available to them.
The looseness of the theme generates a question-mark, too, about where the topic actually ends – if Dylan, Oliveros, Eno and Ono are discussed, then why not also Glenn Branca, Messiaen, Telemann, Henry Cowell, The Shaggs, or various conceptions of ‘Jungle’ music from Ellington to the sub-genre of hip-hop? If rock music is a manifestation of resurgent primitivism, should the influence of rock into jazz and classical music be encompassed in the book? Like any ism, you have to be protective of the boundaries in order to preserve or project a ‘pure’ concept, and in the case of primitivism, it is impossible to disentangle from exoticism and orientalism, even expressionism and cubism, and I found myself left wondering just how far the primitive as a category really can or should be stretched. But those questions are not likely to bother most readers of this entertaining book, who will find a great deal of illumination and interest in Ford’s personal survey of the continuing power of the primitivist impulse to generate musical renewal.