Blow hot and cold

10th January 1997 at 00:00
JAZZ: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE General editor Ronald Atkins Bloomsbury Pounds 16.99

KALEIDOSCOPE EYES: PSYCHEDELIC MUSIC FROM THE 1960s TO THE 1990s By Jim DeRogatis Fourth Estate Pounds 12.99

OPERA FOR BEGINNERS By Ron David Writers And Readers Pounds 6.99

OPERA: A NEW WAY OF LISTENING By Alexander Waugh De Agostini Pounds 15. 99

BELIEVING IN OPERA By Tom Sutcliffe Faber Pounds 20

Tom Deveson browses through guides to music, from jazz to opera

Enthusiasm makes a good beginning for a book on music but it's not enough.The fan isn't necessarily the best advocate. Ronald Atkins's elegantly produced introduction to jazz is more of an animated scrapbook than an exegesis; in the end it can do no more than point towards the music.

There are lots of pictures illustrating the story of this "mother of all hybrids". There's a basic evolutionary history, decade by decade from the ragtime era to the 90s, with a constant dialectic of breakthroughs and revivals supplemented with short studies of the all-time greats. These include many M's such as Morton, Mingus, Monk, Marsalis (and Miles if you're feeling pretentious), with striking photographs of Bechet looking like a personification of Philip Larkin's "enormous yes" and Gillespie's cheeks a-bulge.

A further A-Z of 500 names covers the old (Bolden, Oliver), the new (Bates, Pine), the doomed (Christian, Dolphy) and the world-wide (Mseleku, Yamas-hita), without having enough space for critical description. "Lyrical and highly influential" for Herbie Hancock or "extremely melodious" for Evan Parker leave you wanting to hear more. Fortunately, a recommended recording comes with every name.

Jim DeRogatis celebrates psychedelia with a broad chronological sweep and an insouciant imprecision. Does this music aim at transcendence, play synaesthetic games, make dionysian gestures, imitate suspended time or simply sound weird or get played by weird people? Though he gives us the history of LSD, the musicians haven't by any means all dropped acid; sometimes they've used nothing more illicit than multi-track recording, tape delays and layered mixes.

DeRogatis draws broad genealogical lines from honoured ancestors such as Pink Floyd and Hendrix to ambient techno and rave bands of the present. He tells plenty of anecdotes and isn't afraid of abrupt comment - recent work by Eno and Bowie is "embarrassingly bad". He also has his inaccuracies: the Incredible String Band's "Minotaur's Song" and "Koeeoaddi There" are, respectively, more Sullivan-pastiche and nebulous whimsy than pagan ritual. He doesn't forget the casualties like Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson,nor many who succumbed to dodgy cults like Scientology and Subud. Frank Zappa was wiser: "We are here to turn you loose not turn you on." But in this sky too many lights are costume jewellery not diamonds.

Opera for Beginners adopts the familiar comic-book approach of its successful series which means, here, a lot of cartoons of Pavarotti clones doing daft things. It's a book that is by turns populist, sentimental, eager, turgid, misspelt, preeningly simple-minded, facetious and often silly. There's no real point in calling Berlioz a French dude or talking about Wagner's Rhinebimbos, still less in calling Mozart a prissy little prig in a powdered wig whose music is 90 per cent glib and facile.

Ron David gives particular prominence to singers and arias but is less concerned with composers and operas; he natters on about tenors and divas (and adds a major parenthesis about castrati) with the result that most of what you hear about the works in which they perform consists of bald plot summaries interspersed with flippant irrelevancies. He's also complacently hostile to 20th century opera: it "pretty much croaked after Richard Strauss". Other "Beginners" books have done a serious job of making perplexing topics like Wittgenstein or postmodernism open to well-informed enthusiasm; it's a pity that this one patronises its readers and cheapens its subject.

Alexander Waugh's operatic horizons barely include this century either. The accompanying CD serves up 43 bleeding chunks of war-horse, of which the most recent is Tosca (1900). As the first four pictures are of Callas, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras, it's not hard to guess what bait is being offered. There is a brief treatment of potentially uncomfortable aspects of opera-going like irrational plots, incomprehensible libretti, directorial caprices and elitist audiences, together with an interesting account of how productions are put together.

The centre of the book is a quite useful explanation of how arias and ensembles function musically, with colour-coded guides to instrumentation and vocal and melodic shapes. These are based on four-minute excerpts from "Eight Masterworks" from Purcell to Puccini. But as the accompanying plot summaries deal generously with other works by the composers on the CD, valuable space is taken up by minor bits of Rossini (La Cambiale di Matromonio) and Bizet (Don Procopio). Great works left unmentioned include (picking M's again) Moses und Aron, The Makropulos Case and The Midsummer Marriage.

Tom Sutcliffe cheerfully espouses controversy, finding it deeply encouraging if audiences and critics are sometimes upset by productions that shun decorum or outrage nationalistic and nostalgic loyalties. He persuasively mixes reasoning, bravura assertion and richly detailed descriptions of productions seen over the past 30 years.

Work by older producers like Peter Brook or Ruth Berghaus, with her direct Brechtian links, is as warmly welcomed as the accomplishments of David Pountney at English National Opera, David Freeman at Opera Factory or Peter Sellars with his prodigal Orson-Wellesian chutzpah. Sutcliffe doesn't fully recognise the natural disappointment of the punter (not a subsidised critic) who has spent a small fortune to see the Ring and gets bleak propaganda or contentious fantasy instead.

But that deceptive "instead" lies at the heart of Sutcliffe's case that there is really no such thing as a production without a dramaturgical argument. Stage directions are less important than the interpretative imagination, history can't be used to rescue the present. The words on the page and the notes in the score must ultimately serve the theatre in our minds, despite the boos in the auditorium.

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