BOOK REVIEW: Sound within Sound by Kate Molleson

Sound within Sound by Kate Molleson

The number of biographies and autobiographies of artists is colossal, but what makes Sound within Sound unique is the largely unknown contributions of the ten twentieth-century artists Kate Molleson has featured. The one thing all readers will discover throughout is that one cannot separate the lives and tribulations these artists faced from their music.

Hence critics who say artists should just perform and not speak out on political, social, and welfare issues fail to make connections to the artist’s works, foundations and progression of their ideas. Molleson correctly asserts how these artists each demonstrated “human endurance, depth and daring”.

Molleson first introduces the reader to Julián Carrillo, a Mexican composer and early microtonalist who increased the number of octaves a piano had. This increased the number of vibrations per second made. The impact of Carrillo’s microtonal music created erratic animal behaviour, which included suicide. Carrillo’s own behaviour, from not confirming to a state-approved “Mexican folk-essentialist nationalism” to dedicating his songs to Christopher Columbus and Pope John XXIII, upset the establishment and hindered his career.

Despite the next artist Ruth Crawford (Seeger), being Peggy Seeger’s mother, who is Pete Seeger’s half-brother, Molleson finds out by interviewing Peggy that Ruth’s gender, her own husband musician and occupational neuritis were at times hindrances throughout her career. Nonetheless, Crawford became the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim fellowship as a composer in 1930. Crawford also took up a New Deal role in 1936 to source authentic rural folk songs and bring them to the cities to instil a sense of American national identity.

The first of the five other ladies to feature is Galina Ustvolskaya, who grew up in Russia when Stalin implemented his Five Year Plan, which ruled that concert music was not as useful to the state as collective singing, which resulted in the persecution of “progressive” composers. In spite of this, Ustvolskaya became known for embodying fear, terror and loneliness in her orchestral music and became known as “the high priestess of Sado-minimalism”. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, despite being denied the earned opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music, went on to influence Ethio-jazz music.

From joining the Danish resistance in the Second World War, which resulted in internment and suffering from the post-traumatic condition called “Concentration Camp Syndrome, Else Marie Pade went on to be a pioneer in electronic music.  At the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Pade transformed pure electronics “into shimmering nocturnal constellations”.

Before Daft Punk, there was Éliane Radigue. Radigue worked in electronic music before synthesisers with feedback effects were used and became known, despite disputing the categorisation, as a drone music artist. Radigue’s career route and success is phenomenal. Despite being born with a hearing impediment, this helped Radigue to internalise sound and refused to let being a teenage mother hold her back.

Whilst New Zealander Annea Lockwood’s live performances included setting pianos on fire, Lockwood herself didn’t find sounds, including bones, fires and fireplaces “sonically interesting”. Lockwood studied tactile sounds in the natural world and the way sounds change and transfers energy.

Walter Smetek, despite being a prodigious pianist, was forced to rethink following a hand injury and take up the cello. Although a Swiss immigrant Smetek influenced the Brazilian Tropicália art musical movement in the 1960s and invented many rudimentary instruments with basic materials which could be played by many different people at once.

The business world site Colonel Sanders was a late starter; in the world of music, Jose Maceda was almost 50 when he wrote his first composition. Like Smekek, the Philippine Maceda encouraged mass participation in performances. Despite not being brought up in traditional pre-western music, Maceda used traditional instruments, collected field recordings with his wife and resisted “European cultural hegemony and dominance” in his work. Maceda’s teacher, Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach, saw Jose’s potential.

The life of the mostly self-taught Chicago pianist and band leader “Muhal” Richard Abrams equally fascinates. Through the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Abrams challenged the policing of borders between jazz and classical music and racial attitudes by controlling the sounds made and created. Despite Abram's exceptional talent, one thing that helped him to maintain his focus in the late seventies was being able to take up residency with his family in the Manhattan Plaza in New York, where his rent was subsidised and capped at 30 per cent of his earnings. Whilst not focused on Molleson’s book, this reference to rent controls will draw in many readers.

Molleson aimed to introduce readers to a diverse motley of musical geniuses globally. With six of the musicians being female and the artists coming from countries ranging from Denmark to Ethiopia, Molleson easily achieves this aim. From demonstrating and intellectualising each of the artist’s unique contributions to music, Molleson also taps into their personalities and the personal and geo-political events that shaped their lives. Molleson also taps into the lives of these musicians' contemporaries.  Sound within Sound will fascinate all readers, but Molleson’s in-depth study will especially appeal to musicologists who have studied music technology and sound production.

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