Tuesday, September 09, 2003

[185.1] IAN MacDONALD, 1948-2003

Apparently it happened on 20 August, when no-one was looking. Like many, I was aware of his struggle with bouts of depression. But it still came as a profound shock to hear the other day that music critic Ian MacDonald had taken his own life at his home in Wotton-under-Edge. Puts all the media hype about David Blaine's braveheart 'above the below' into perspective, eh?

I never met Ian, but when you read his work you felt you knew him -- large heart, big brain, warts and all. He is (in that horrible phrase) 'best known' for his epoch making book on the Beatles, of course. 'Revolution In The Head' received rave reviews from fellow-critics who suddenly realised that it was possible to offer a serious musicological analysis and appreciation of a bunch of lads from Liverpool who tore chunks out of vernacular traditions and offered them back, Miles Davis-like, as a prolegomena to an entirely re-written script.

It is one of the ironies of Ian, and of the perspective he spawned at the New Musical Express, that he resented much of what followed in the wake of the Fab Four. He thought King Crimson were OK. He hated Yes. He was puzzled by Can and Faust, I think. He rightly smelled the empty bombast at the core of ELP.

But he loved the pastoral-tragedy that was the young and lost Nick Drake. Perhaps disturbingly and prophetically so, given their parallel endings (Drake's suicide was in 1974). For Ian was, in surprising ways, pretty conservative. And a pessimist, underneath all the fire and the energy.

It makes perfect sense, therefore, that he spent many hours labouring with his other great love - the music of Shostakovich. His project ('The New Shostakovitch', Fourth Estate, 1990; Northeastern University Press, 1990; Oxford University Press, 1991) was to defend the great Russian composer from the calumnies of the KGB, and from the withering attentions of critics who subsequently accused him of toadying to the Stalinist aesthetic in spite of reams of new evidence to the contrary.

I agree with MacDonald 100%. Whatever ambiguities were involved in Shostakovich's relationship to the State (and there were obviously many, given the historical contingencies that he lived with), his music speaks for itself. Painful, tragic, angry, sarcastic, joyous, melancholic and triumphal -- often all at the same time -- it was the most singular protest against the constraints of tyranny that the twentieth century could imagine. Even the famous Symphony that labelled itself as a response to 'rightful criticism'. Don't look at what it says on the can, said MacDonald, listen to the substance.

That principle marks 'Revolution In The Head' too. These aren't just 'pop songs', he avers, they are small masterpieces. Their originators heard more than even they knew in the heady musical ferment of the '60s.

I've never quite 'got' the Beatles in this way. Perhaps my devotion to the art of song has not been sufficient. But the attention was clearly worthy. And it trained a generation of people to ignore labels and to look for real worth in art and music. Dylan and Keats may not be comparable, but it is thanks to Ian more than C.P. Snow that we can consider them in the same breath.

Ian's latest book was a collection, The People's Music. Probably his last interview was with Beppe Colli, 5 August 2003, on the estimable Clouds and Clocks website (with homage to Ligeti).

So, farewell Mr MacDonald. We'll regard your words well. And above all the unfathomably wonderful sounds they point us to.


See alt.obituaries for a longer piece by Martin Anderson, focussing on Shostakovich. And Jim at ctrlbrk.co.uk (with fine on-links). Also Fred Mazelis et al on the Shostakovich debate. MacDonald edited, co-founded and contributed to Music Under Soviet Rule (especially a fine essay on the Georgian composer Kancheli.) See also alleged influences on Lennon's Revolution 9. It's all out there, waiting to be re-visited.

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