Book review: Earth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive

Earth Dances: Music in Search of the PrimitiveEarth Dances: Music in Search of the Primitive by Andrew Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Ford is a noted broadcaster, writer and composer. He’s intelligent and considered, and has authored a number of books on music, with Earth Dances being his most recent, and one which has a quartet of radio shows attached.

The book and the series examine the idea of the primitive in music. Ford is careful to describe the term as that in line with minimalism, pre-verbal or savage impulses rather than more culturally loaded definitions often applied to non-Western cultures. To this end, Ford switches between chapters of criticism and interviews with composers, including Brian Eno, Liza Lim and Pauline Oliveros. Music of all stripes is covered, lest anyone be frightened off by the prospect of a classical-only examination: equal weight is given to the primal nature of rock as is any modern classical ululation interpretation.

The chapters of criticism are based around theme, rather than an ongoing chronology per se. There’s chapters about attempts to be coarse – here we’ll find Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and those which followed in its wake – and others about the power of percussion, or of drones, or of childhood. The writing is good, detailed and approachable, but as a whole the book seems a bit haphazard, which is partially due to the fact that some of these chapters had appeared elsewhere. Coupled with the switching between prose and question-and-answer, it sometimes feels as if the book’s title was gleaned from the sum of its parts rather than being the principle guiding its construction from the outset. Understandable, I guess, but still a presence I found hard to shake.

Part of the problem with this book is that Ford is hamstrung between writing something sociological as opposed to something musicological. As such, you get an odd blend between the two, which could perhaps be offputting for some people more interested in the primal nature of rock versus the intricacies of composition. I know a bit about composition, but felt woefully inadequate when confronted with some sections, even though there were no stave reprints, as you might find in other texts. I know this is my failing, but still, it leant on my reading a little. Having said that, I did still glean enough through some of the discussion to find new things to want to hear or learn about.

(I do wish there had been a couple of pages of listening recommendations at the end of the work, though, rather than piece titles salted throughout: reading on an ebook platform made me a bit disinclined to take notes on the matter.)

There’s some curious selections in the choice of bands Ford works into his canon. I like the Violent Femmes as much as the next nerd, but I’m not certain they can be lobbed alongside Bo Diddley, say, and hold their own. (It’s probably not surprising that a quote from Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie lauding the book is on the back cover.) Ditto, I found his dubbing of Tom Waits as “the hipster Ezekiel” a bit odd. (Let’s not get on to the merits of a Waitsian lens of childhood, especially if you’re gonna take ‘Kentucky Avenue’ as the ur-example over ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’, say.)

(Even so, I applaud anyone who feels moved to use their work to get people into Sunn O))) or Scott Walker.)

Something I do like about the interviews – even though I generally find Q&A format a drag in print – is that Ford is not a huge editor of the process. It’s quite endearing, actually: there’s moments (most notably in the Lim and Oliveros interviews, I think) where the composers are, if not disagreeing with Ford’s take, are not entirely convinced of his points. This friction is interesting, mostly because lots of writers would chamfer it away. Leaving it in conveys more questioner humanity than you find in many interviews, and it’s valuable.

Based on the reading of this, piecemeal as it may be, I’m keen to read Ford’s other works, particularly Illegal Harmonies, which also had a radio show attached. There is no doubting the enthusiasm found in Earth Dances, nor in the intellectual chops backing up its assertions. It feels more cobbled together than I’d like, but I still devoured it, and suspect anyone with an interest in the roots of music – and how we still search for them today – would enjoy it, also.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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