Recorded music did not exist before 1877, when Thomas Edison invented his wax cylinder phonograph. Until then the only music available to us was performed music. Now, thanks to our paraphernalia of laptops, iPhones, wireless earbuds, file-sharing software and the playlist culture of Spotify, music is omnipresent and unavoidable. During lockdown,  music played on in the confines of our homes  – but in the emptied-out concert halls, wretchedly, it died. Nicholas Kenyon, managing director since 2007 of the Barbican arts centre, believes that the “convening power” of music is so great that it will not be long before we gather again to listen and applaud in public.


Kenyon’s book The Life of Music is a wonderfully engaging survey of the classical repertoire from the 12th century to the present day. In scholarly pages, Kenyon looks at the birth of new schools (“adventures”) in music down the ages as it responded to war, political persecution and pandemic. His survey ranges from the medieval plainchant of the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (the “first composer to be made a saint by the Catholic church”) to the fairytale grotesqueries of the contemporary György Ligeti, whose music was used by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining as well as in 2001: A Space Odyssey.



Musical history has rarely progressed in a “straight line”, Kenyon reminds us. The Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem’s hypnotic 15th-century Requiem, with its cascade-like sheets of sound, influenced the 20th century Ligeti’s own multi-voiced compositions, which owe a good deal to Renaissance polyphony. Even the most iconoclastic composer borrows from the past. Karlheinz Stockhausen looked back to the “forward-looking” Richard Wagner for his own crackpot, week-long opera cycle Licht. By the same token, the Estonian Arvo Pärt is steeped in ancient Gregorian and Russian orthodox church chorale, and remains one of the few composers at work today whose music appeals to non-classical audiences.


Kenyon has long championed lesser-known music from the western canon. Among his favourite modern composers (usefully mentioned in a playlist appended to the book) are Luciano Berio and Judith Weir. The French-born Edgar Varèse is another; Varèse wrote “knockout” pieces indebted to the Italian Futurist composer-painter Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises urged musicians to explore a “new music” made up of car horns, clanking trams and other urban noise pollution. Russolo’s aesthetic shows in the air raid sirens and other bellicose ambient noise that distinguishes such Varèse masterworks as Amériques and Arcana. (Kenyon tells us that Varèse was Frank Zappa’s favourite composer.



Kenyon is a broad-minded and intellectually inquisitive critic. The enigmatic but rarely performed consorts of the Cavalier composer William Lawes (who was killed by Parliamentarians at the Siege of Chester in 1645) are recommended. So too are the repetitive syncopations of the American minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The Life of Music does pretend to be exhaustive but it is what every music lover needs close by: not a dry academic analysis, but a listener’s companion.


The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument, discovered in what is now southeastern Germany, is a five-holed bone flute almost forty thousand years old, that resembles a modern-day recorder. What sort of music did our primate ancestors listen to? Music – more precisely, singing – probably served homo sapiens as courtship ritual. In Musical Human, an amalgam of neuro-science, anthropology and media studies, Michael Spitzer considers the relationship between music and the human species over a period of 165 million years. Michael Spitzer, who is professor of music at the University of Liverpool, covers some of the same ground as Kenyon, but his approach is quite different. Unlike Kenyon, Spitzer looks at music from non-western cultures: Islamic Qawwali (divine “utterance”) chant, Afro-Spanish son cubano.


The book is brimful of off-beat facts and erudition. The 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale was the best-selling nature record of all time. Studies show that we share rhythm with insects and melody with birds. (When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural.) Professor Spitzer’s darting, kingfisher mind moves giddily from Stormzy to Mozart by way of Whitney Houston, K-Pop and the Aztecs. It can be exhausting, but we are left in no doubt about music’s extraordinary transformative power. Spitzer shares with Kenyon a conviction that music is one of the essential, elemental things that make us what we are. As the concert halls tentatively re-open, these two books are more than timely.



This review appeared in the Financial Times on 22 May 2021