The phrase “music history” likely summons up images of long-dead composers, smug men in wigs and waistcoats, and people dancing without touching. In Music: A Subversive History, Gioia responds to the false notions that undergird this tedium. Traditional histories of music, Gioia contents, downplay those elements of music that are considered disreputable or irrational-its deep connections to sexuality, magic, trance and alternative mind states, healing, social control, generational conflict, political unrest, even violence and murder. They suppress the stories of the outsiders and rebels who created musical revolutions and instead celebrate the mainstream assimilators who borrowed innovations, diluted their impact and disguised their sources. Here, Gioia attempts to reclaim music history for the riffraff, the insurgents and provocateurs – the real drivers of change and innovation.
In Music, Gioia tells the four-thousand-year history of music as a source of power, change, upheaval and enchantment. He starts by exploring humanity’s first instruments, which were closely linked to the food chain: the first horns were animal horns, our earliest string instrument was a hunter’s bow and our oldest known instrument, the Neanderthal flute, was constructed from a bear femur. He turns to neuroscience to explain why the Celtic love story of Tristan and Iseult echoes the eleventh century Gorgani Persian love epic about Vis and Ramin, or why the troubadours of Europe echo artisan singers of ancient Egypt. He investigates the idea of “song as sin” as Church leaders for the first thousand years of Christianity attempted to control and suppress the songs of the common people and he explains the shift of music from a social practice to an economic enterprise during the Renaissance. Gioia shows how social outcasts have repeatedly become the great trailblazers of musical expression: slaves and their descendants, for instance, have repeatedly reinvented music in America and elsewhere, from ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, to bossa nova, soul and hip hop.
A revolutionary and revisionist account, Music: A Subversive History will be essential reading for anyone interested in the meaning of music.