Sifting through the past 100 years of art music can be a formidable task, and understanding the avant-garde musical climate that exists today is nearly impossible. While Linkin Park may sell millions of albums in a few weeks, the sad truth is that many of the most memorable and significant moments in art music were fleeting, only experienced by a small group of people and often poorly documented. But since 1982, The Wire, a UK-based modern music magazine, has dedicated itself to making sense of the present musical culture by removing genre-based limits on new music: including jazz, electronica, rock, and contemporary “classical” music side-by-side. The UNDERCURRENTS series of articles, which appeared monthly in the magazine during 1999, aimed to probe deeper into issues such as technological advancement, spiritual practices, interdisciplinary art, and political movements that have had a wide-reaching effect on serious, living music.
Simply reading the table of contents is enough to get any music fan excited about reading the book and the vivid stories that are spun masterfully by some of The Wire’s core writers like David Toop, Rob Young, and Christoph Cox don’t disappoint. Each essay is packed with details, memories, and a lot of good old-fashioned name-dropping (something The Wire is famous for). A great primer for anyone who wants to nonchalantly bring up the glitch movement at dinner or feel as though they were present at the first anarchic performances of Musica Elettronica Viva, UNDERCURRENTS also has a treasure trove of information that will be valuable even to the most hardcore new music connoisseurs.
And while the authoritative voices of the essays may convince you that by the end of the book you know all there is to know about the 20th century avant-garde, editor Rob Young recognizes that these essays only scratch the surface of creating an intelligent, broad discourse about contemporary music. In response, The Wire has continued to commission similar articles as a part of their subsequent Tangents series, to continue unfolding the history. Hopefully, the future will bring a greater diversity of writers (all authors in this book are male) and certainly more female artists into the mix. After all, when talking about the significant figures and moments of 20th century music, it would be blasphemous to leave out the likes of Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Alice Coltrane, Pamela Z, Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, Frances-Marie Uitti, Janis Joplin, Diamanda Galas, Alison Knowles, Hanne Darboven, Alice Shields, Joan LaBarbara, Maria da Alvear, Carla Bley, and the younger vanguard represented by artists such as Blectum from Blechdom, Helen Mirra, and Le Tigre. We’re talking about the 20th century after all, which saw a great shift in consciousness about the role of women in politics, culture, and art. A shift that—like the invention of the phonograph or the civil rights movement, both addressed in the book—certainly broke down a lot of artistic conventions, most notably the role of woman as muse.
Despite this oversight, UNDERCURRENTS is a great introduction to some of the important trends that have affected the trajectory of music over the past century and certainly makes one hungry for more.