On paper – Andrew Mellor: The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press)

The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Culture and Music by Andrew Mellor

Yale University Press [hardback, 320pp, 16 b/w illustrations, ISBN 9780300254402, £18.99]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

With their generous levels of state funding and – outwardly at least – a high degree of social cohesion, the Nordic countries continue to set the bar for might be thought of as ‘advanced’ societies. That much of what has been written (English or otherwise) about them is derived from internal sources adds to a feeling of self-sustaining complacency which Andrew Mellor, having worked as a freelance music journalist in or around Copenhagen for almost a decade, is well equipped to consider, corroborate or, when necessary, correct in The Northern Silence.

Its subtitle, Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture, is variously significant – Mellor having made it his brief to travel as extensively and cover as inclusively as possible the many outlets which exist in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) as well as Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Although much of the volume’s content ostensibly derives from articles or interviews written for numerous magazines and journals (not least Gramophone, of which he was reviews editor before heading northwards), Mellor has been scrupulous with organizing then integrating his material so there is never any sense of sources thrown together arbitrarily. Rather, the five main chapters unfold as a sequence of topics or subjects related, even if only tangentially, to the heading in question and can be read sectionally or complete as preferred.

The first chapter duly proceeds as overviews of those four larger countries as experienced by a sympathetic outsider and focusses on four musical works whose attributes could be taken as exemplifying a national context. Thus, the bracing harmonic interplay of archaic and modern in Grieg’s Four Psalms, more provocative fusion of tradition with sophistication in Sibelius’s En Saga, head-on confrontation with ingrained parochialism in Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva, then the acerbic sideswipe at bourgeois conformism in Atterberg’s Dollar Symphony. Not all of these ‘case studies’ are pursued throughout what follows, but their underlying premises as typifying the essence of Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden holds good in each instance. Icelandic music is represented by the juxtaposing of characteristics as found in Jón Leifs and Björk, whose output (if not personas) may have more in common than Mellor cares to admit, and Sunleif Rasmussen exemplifies that of the Faroes in terms of a culture whose making up for lost time might yet result in the most potent amalgam of any Nordic state relative to size.

Nor is ‘culture’ defined in exclusivist terms – Mellor always mindful to probe the connection between music and the plastic arts, most notably architecture or design, through which these countries are known even more directly to the wider world. The sixth chapter is particularly valuable in this respect, and those who have marvelled at the design of Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall while cringing at its acoustic will likely derive food-for-thought on reading about Alvar Aalto’s architectural convictions being a latter-day parallel to those of Sibelius as composer. That the aural and the visual have often had so close an accommodation in these countries is hardly a surprise given its common derivation from their environment, and the ease by which Mellor points up such lateral associations is a testament to his immersion in all things Nordic.

That said, it is those musical legacies of Nielsen and, above all, Sibelius which dominate the discourse almost a century after the death of the one and the ‘silence’ of the other. Admirable as Mellor is in identifying Nielsen’s emergence against a backdrop of Austro-German norms, his desire to convey that of Sibelius from a similar vantage means the crucial role of Russian music in the honing of his idiom is overlooked; odd given the acknowledgment elsewhere of Finnish culture being forged from the crucible that was Russian political dominance. In other ways this is evidently a book of its era – composers such as Rosenberg, Holmboe or Sallinen get short shrift, though the ‘dark horse’ that is Fartein Valen warrants discussion through his masterly Second Piano Sonata. Of more recent figures, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg are not unreasonably surveyed, but Mellor proves no more immune to the blandishments of Anders Hillborg than most; when Sweden has any number of fine second-rate figures such as Anders Eliasson, to emphasize so passably third-rate a figure seems the more unfortunate.

Elsewhere, Mellor can be (surprisingly?) selective as to his inclusions. The evolution of Per Nørgård through to his trail-blazing Second Symphony is well detailed, but there is hardly a mention of his volatile later music – not least the Fifth Symphony which reassesses the genre as decisively as any such piece from the late 20th century, though its 21st-century parallel in the Third Symphony of Seppo Pohjola is included. A comprehensive survey of Nordic music is hardly Mellor’s intention, as he mentions near the outset when ‘‘…by necessity, plenty of talented and important musicians are left out’’, but a feeling persists such omissions may be because they do not accord with the Nordic perspective that he is keen to convey. One hopes his thoughts on such inspired misfits as Rued Langgaard find their place in a future volume.

In other respects, Mellor might be thought misguided in his even-handedness. Sympathetic as Atterberg may have been to aspects of Nazi-ism, to criticize him for rendering the term Volk as ‘people’ rather than Aryan ignores the fact the latter definition had been in common usage in Europe, United States and, moreover, the Soviet Union over several generations. Also, his criticism of Danish paper Jyllands-Posten for its Mohammad parody misses the point that the confronting of institutions, religious or otherwise, is necessarily a facet of vibrant democracy.

As stylishly presented as the Nordic textiles on its cover and admirably edited (but just what is Sibelius’s String Quartet in E minor?), this absorbing read says a great deal for Mellor’s breadth of outlook and his depth of sympathies. In the Prelude and Postlude, the reaching-out of Sibelius’s masterpiece Tapiola towards silence is pertinently considered as exemplifying Nordic culture. Hopefully this book’s authorial voice will stay resilient for a long while yet.

For information on purchasing this book, head to the Yale University or Waterstones websites. You can also listen to a podcast interview with the author at the Gramophone website

On paper – Steven Isserlis – The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion (Faber)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ask Steven Isserlis the music he would take to a desert island, and his answer would surely be the six Bach Cello Suites. The cellist has lived with their music all his adult life, and having released his award-winning recording of them for Hyperion in 2007, he now expresses his deep love and admiration for them in written form.

What’s the book like?

In a word, invigorating. Having lived with the suites myself for 35+ years as an amateur cellist, your reviewer is very much a convert – but reading this gave me enthusiasm anew, for Isserlis reveals new treasures about this wonderful music at every turn.

Crucially he does this in a way that will appeal to cellists and non-cellists alike, and even those who struggle with musical terms. A helpful glossary is on hand to help here, but so is an introduction that sets out this celebration of six works where mystery, expression and originality walk hand-in-hand.

The origins of the suites are shrouded in mystery, right down to their authorship. Isserlis tackles these questions head-on, in a wholly compelling way. He confronts the doubts, examines the existing performing editions, and looks at the role of Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena in their publication, all without getting too bogged down in musicology. There is healthy but qualified assumption and speculation, made as a music lover but backed up with firm arguments from Bach scholars past and present.

Isserlis looks at the construction of each suite in great detail, marvelling at Bach’s consistent marriage of mathematical precision and emotional outpouring. He uses the scholarly texts but also leans heavily and most enjoyably on his perspective from the pure, musical instinct of a performer. This approach lifts the music from the page, frequently inspiring the reader to listen along.

This instinct leads to a central, compelling case for a subtext for the suites, describing the life of Christ in a way that can be keenly experienced by the listener but which also makes a great deal of musical sense, with the caveat that the cellist’s conclusions are largely speculative.

What is beyond doubt is the technical mastery shown by Bach in writing for the cello, and the inspiration that flowed so readily and so inevitably in writing the suites, lifting the instrument and its potential to a higher plain. The six suites are remarkable pieces both individually and collectively, as are the six movements of each – and Isserlis brings them to life as he writes. He celebrates their role in the life of any cellist while also, under his breath, lightly cursing some of the technical difficulties as the cycle progresses.

Readers can opt to take the book from start to finish, taking in each of the 36 movements, but the layout rewards repeat visits to dip in to individual parts and elements of their composition. This is ideal not just for serious, practicing cellists but also for individual listener preferences.

Does it all work?

Yes, in several ways. Isserlis is a fluent and passionate writer, putting the music first at all times, so that reading the book will almost always lead to a first hand encounter with the music. That is the surest guide to success for any book on music, surely!

Is it recommended?

Yes, on pretty much every level. For cellists – either full or part-time, like your reviewer – this book is essential and thought-provoking reading. It reveals afresh the many delights to be found in experiencing this wonderful music, and will also make you want to listen to more Bach, the choral works especially, to explore the fascinating parallels drawn between these and the suites.

Non-cellists should not hesitate to approach the book either, for there are many entertaining and thoughtful stories in the book that prove richly rewarding.

This is a fine achievement, celebrating a body of work that all cellists hold dear. The music lifts from the page and into our homes with an easy candour and compelling storytelling. It is a wonderful achievement.

On paper – Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit by Matt Brennan


Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit
by Matt Brennan
Oxford University Press 2020 (371 Pages, ISBN: #978-0-19-068387-0)

Reviewed by John Earls

Matt Brennan starts his magnificent social history of the drum kit by citing one of the many frequently made ‘jokes’ about drummers based on the stereotype of them being unintelligent (in fact all chapters start with ‘jokes’ concerning drummer stereotypes). He then demonstrates how the supposed stupidity of drummers is rooted in the history of racial stereotypes (primitive-savage drummer) and goes on to explain how the drum kit is “not only a product of musical ingenuity at the turn of the [twentieth] century, but also an outcome of massive historical changes in human migration, trade and engineering, beginning with the forced migration of the transatlantic slave trade”.

This is an ‘academic’ book (Brennan is Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow) and the book is rigorous and detailed in its research and analysis. But it’s an incredibly rich story that Brennan makes sure never gets dry in the telling. It’s a riveting account of the importance of drums and drummers in music’s history (and future), deftly done through a largely chronological narrative cleverly structured in chapters focused on six ‘drummer’ themes: clever, noisy, studious, creative, working and indispensable.

We see the development of so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ music with drums and drummers confined to an inferior status both between and within musical genres, and are then taken on a journey through the development of jazz, rock, and hip hop that challenges and upends many perceptions and myths.

The book also covers the role of drums and percussion in classical music which has its own ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ story. The French composer Hector Berlioz, for example, published a guide for composers that divided percussion into two categories: a first order of instruments with recognisable pitch (e.g. timpani, bells, glockenspiel) and a lower order of “noises designed for special effect” (e.g. bass drum, snare drum, cymbals) which, as Brennan points out, would form the core components of the drum kit.

Of course, composers would later write works for dedicated percussion ensembles including Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, John Cage’s Quartet for Percussion, and Steve Reich’s milestone piece Drumming.

The role of jazz is central to this story, including the evolution of styles, development of equipment, and status of drummers. Gene Krupa, the ‘King of Swing’ and ‘World’s Highest Paid Drummer’ as a 1939 Slingerland catalogue has it, is identified as playing a key role in all these aspects.

Many jazz greats are also woven into the narrative, with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke rightfully explored.

The chapter on ‘Working Drummers’ is particularly good, capturing drumming as a “distinct form of musical labour” and showing not only how the economic and cultural value assigned to a drummer’s work has changed over time, but “how the seat behind the drum kit became a gendered workplace”. Brennan examines the tragic story of Karen Carpenter and suggests that it can be used as a kind of parable to illuminate a bigger picture of the sexist social conditions faced by women drummers. The same ‘social history’ approach helps explain why nineteenth-century American drum manufacturers tended to be overwhelmingly white.

The book is also good on the raw deal that drummers often get in respect of musical authorship using Clyde Stubblefield, who played in James Brown’s band, and his role in Funky Drummer as a case study.

Two ‘star’ drummers often perceived in the ‘wild animals of rock’ mythology are John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon (The Who) and Brennan writes brilliantly about their styles and roles in their respective bands, but also movingly about issues concerning lack of self-esteem.

By contrast, the role of modest rock drummer is exemplified by Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) who whilst undoubtedly extremely knowledgeable and skilful at his craft is more interested in praising the artistry of others – “there are a million kids who can play like me”.

Brennan neatly challenges this in a nice piece about the Stones Sympathy for the Devil and its opening groove and shows how comments by Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger reveal how “Jagger’s ignorance comes across on several levels”. (By the way, Mike Edison’s Sympathy for the Drummer – Why Charlie Watts Matters is another excellent book, but it’s a rollicking read of a very different type).

The final chapter explores the relationship between drums, drummers, technology and the rise of the machines. It’s a fascinating take on the “back and forth influence between acoustic kit drummers and beatmakers” such as J Dilla. Incidentally, the relationship between drummers and technology is not just about electronic devices. One of the best examples explored earlier in the book is the ingenuity of drummers and equipment manufacturers in respect of the bass drum pedal.

This is a wonderful book and Brennan has done a great service to drummers and all lovers of music. As he says himself “we are all drummers now.”

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union (and a former drummer). He tweets at @john_earls

For more information and to purchase, visit the Oxford University Press website