As with his previous books, Gioia’s latest, “Music: A Subversive History,” is intended for the general reader: You can tell this immediately because it doesn’t contain a single bar of musical notation. Rather than devote space to yet another analysis of the sonata form, Gioia’s focus is primarily sociocultural: He wants to explain the dynamics of music history, to track how styles and forms evolve, run their course and are eventually replaced or re-energized. Naturally, he has a thesis. Just as societies need carnivalesque holidays such as Mardi Gras to remain healthy, so too does music require regular infusions of Dionysian eroticism and violence. Conservative practices and arthritic genres must be periodically disrupted and undermined.
In particular, Gioia argues that “musical innovation happens from the bottom up and the outside in.” After all, fresh ideas are seldom found in the conservatory, cathedral or concert hall. One needs instead to search out “the neglected spheres of music that survive outside the realms of power brokers, religious institutions and social elites.”
For Gioia the music that truly matters is the kind that upsets Mom and Dad — and it almost always emerges from the dispossessed. Slaves, outlaws, criminals, poor country folk, foreign emigrants and inner-city kids aren’t hampered by genteel aesthetic strictures. Besides, while heard melodies are sweet, those never heard before can be even sweeter, albeit sometimes a bit loud or strangely syncopated. Ultimately, Gioia points out, most of the important developments in American music spring from African American roots. Spirituals, gospel choruses, ragtime, the blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop — these define our nation’s ever-changing soundscape.
“Music: A Subversive History” covers the entire 4,000 years that humankind has been making rhythmic and harmonious noise. Did you know that there are more than 1,000 references to music in the Bible? Or that the United States “supports 130 military bands, spending three times as much on military music as on the National Endowment for the Arts”? Or that the oldest songwriter known by name is Enheduanna, a high priestess of Ur in Sumeria? From the beginning, music has always been linked with magic, medicine and mysticism.
For Gioia, the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras may be the most important and dire figure in his entire book. This is because Pythagoras conceptualized music as “a rational science of sounds that could be described in mathematical terms.” As a result, “the ratios and proportions that initially helped us to grasp songs turned into the rules and constraints that defined them.” Before Pythagoras, women played a central role in music-making; for a long time afterward, not so much. The ecstasy, communal rites and personal sexual anguish we associate with Sappho were displaced by Plato’s warnings about music’s emotionalism, then overshadowed by imperial Rome’s martial airs and marching anthems.
And so it goes throughout history: “On the one hand we encounter the music of order and discipline, aspiring to the perfection of mathematics and aligned with institutional prerogatives. On the other, we find music of intense feelings, frequently associated with magic or trance states, and resistant to control from above.” And yet the former cannot exist without the latter. “The intense songs of outsiders and various marginalized groups possess power, and that power can’t be ignored.” So the rebel sounds are eventually absorbed, the rebels themselves co-opted into becoming the new establishment. What initially shocks in the South Bronx ends up being performed at Carnegie Hall.
Although Goia doesn’t say so, this pattern governs nearly all art forms. The best emerging writers metaphorically reject their domineering parents and gravitate to their raffish uncles and outcast aunts. Over the past half-century, for example, mainstream realistic novels have lost their once privileged centrality to crossbred works that draw inspiration from fantasy and science fiction, crime novels, pornography and the western. The next generation of writers will again look to the margins — perhaps to Twitter or computer games — to shake up the “dominant paradigm” and “make it new.”
I can’t speak highly enough about “Music: A Subversive History.” Though Gioia can be subtly boastful at times, it’s never egregious, and he is always fun to read. Women, he notes, were traditionally associated chiefly with “the three L’s: the lament, the lullaby, and the love song”— and these are, he ruefully adds, “the three genres that rarely got preserved for posterity.” Nearly 300 pages later we learn that the modern music industry, for which Gioia’s disdain goes undisguised, can also be described with three L’s: “litigation, legislation, and lobbying.” Throughout, the book gravitates to music’s bad boys: the celebrated madrigalist Gesualdo got away with murdering his wife and her lover; Bach, the father of 20 known children, liked his beer as much as any Supreme Court justice; and the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious embraced self-destruction with a lover’s ecstatic ardor.
I suspect that academic scholars will pooh-pooh aspects of “Music: A Subversive History.” That’s as it should be. Despite his awards, Ted Gioia remains something of an outsider critic, convinced that the passion for destruction can be a creative passion. As he writes, in his book’s final chapter — a list of 40 aphoristic takeaways — “Institutions and businesses do not create musical innovations; they just recognize them after the fact.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
MUSIC: A SUBVERSIVE HISTORY