Kate Molleson begins Sound within Sound: Opening Our Ears to the Twentieth Century with a loud call for change. “I write this book out of love and anger. The love, because I want to shout from the rooftops that classical music is gripping, essential, personally and politically game changing. The anger, because I can’t shout proudly about a culture that wilfully closes its doors on perceived outsiders. And it does.”

It’s a striking opening gambit, and a relatable one too, succinctly capturing both the absolute joy and unavoidable embarrassment that comes with being a fan of classical music. There are fewer barriers to listening, loving and finding your own version of classical music than there have ever been, and finding “your people” who are just as enthusiastic as you is still about the greatest joy of living a musical life. And yet, outside of that bubble, shouting about classical music to people who are unsurprisingly nonplussed is never an easy task, a narrow path between priggish defensiveness and overly earnest statements full of historical caveats. Particularly in today’s free market of genre fandom, a leveled playing field where there’s nothing innately exceptional about being a classical music fan, the feeling Molleson describes is acutely apparent.

Far be it for bashfulness to become the book’s overriding emotion though, as Molleson (writer, BBC Radio 3 presenter, and former Guardian critic) brightly introduces ten prickly artists rarely covered in even the most protracted conversations around 20th century music. Approached through an intersectional lens, Molleson has put the hard yards in—quite literally—to assess this gaggle of misfits in their differing geographic contexts, with vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, and Paris.

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Molleson has no desire to create new canons, and she avoids the standard buzzwords and conceptual frameworks—overlooked, undiscovered, outsider genius—that usually fail to meaningfully alter existing canons, that only succeed in widening them ever so slightly so that X unjustly neglected figure isn’t forgotten for another generation. In fact, the heterogeneity of her selections make the chapters zip along quickly, a feat all too rare in musical nonfiction. Apart from a few personal characteristics—a handful of gregarious types, but more often isolated or antagonistic figures—there’s little to connect the people she discusses, and one wonders what kind of conversations might occur at a dinner party with Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru, Éliane Radigue, Walter Smetak, and Galina Ustvolskaya.

There is a reactive strain to the book though, fighting against the prevailing orthodoxies of music history books. “Why were these pioneering figures missed out?” Molleson asks, as she questions her own education. You can almost see the dust-jacket quote now, recommending Sound Within Sound as an essential for students seeking a mind-altering experience. I don’t disagree. But it’s worth noting that, for a young, progressive audience in the UK to whom this book will probably appeal the most, the history books Molleson speaks of are less codified. Year 4 of the UK’s Model Music Curriculum teaches Anna Clyne, Jai Ho, and John Rutter, and case studies on Indonesian Gamelan, Brazilian samba, and British Asian Bhangra. At GCSE and A Level (in the U.S., roughly tenth grade and AP) an outlook comparable to Molleson’s, involving non-comprehensive set works driven by cultural context, has long been the norm.

There’s a difficult but necessary point to be made after Molleson, on music education in the UK today: there’s a love—that music education is diversifying, becoming more culturally empathetic, and integrating some of the New Musicology methodologies that have become the norm at tertiary level—and an anger, that music education is generally shrinking, becoming more dependent on charities and private bodies for its provision, and only available to smaller, richer, more privileged sections of society.

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Discussing the past 20 years of the UK’s secondary education policy in reference to a book on the music of the 20th century might seem like an argument in the weeds, but if such policy alters the makeup and knowledge base of the key practitioners of the near future, it changes fundamentally both how we teach and how we write histories. (It’s worth noting the overall situation still trumps classical music education in American schools.) One of a slew of damaging policies is the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc), a wrap-around secondary school policy first introduced by the Conservative Lib Dem coalition under education secretary Michael Gove in 2011. It succeeded in creating a hierarchy between essential and non-essential subjects, leaving music education as something difficult to justify when every subject is rationalized to its use value. Since 2011, students taking a GCSE qualification in music have fallen by 19 percent, with those taking A-level music fallen by 44 percent, and 93 percent of music teachers believing the introduction of the Ebacc has “negatively impacted music education” in secondary schools.

All that change is already having a noticeable impact at tertiary level. “Time and again, an issue came up: Many students simply did not know the large body of music that was assumed to be the ‘canon,” writes Daniel Elphick, a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, in the introductory blog post to his course A History of the 19th Century in 100 Works. “I was giving them tools to critique a body of knowledge (i.e. familiarity with these pieces) that they didn’t know in the first place.” The climate of ideas at the moment makes it hard to approach such situations without giving oxygen to the dreaded c**** c**** phrase we all hate. But there has to be a way of realizing that both Molleson’s belief that “nobody is calling to ditch Mozart and Mahler” and that the music class teaching Mozart, Mahler, Miles, Morrissey, Monk, and Maconchy is under genuine threat can be true at the same time.

All of which adds to the timeliness of Sound Within Sound’s intervention, as classical music history and education reflect on fundamental changes in how they’re carried out and taken in. Despite its vanguardish energy (I confess I didn’t know many of the figures covered in the book), Sound Within Sound covers a surprising number of bases: lots of surprising new sounds for the seasoned classical music fan, but without any real recourse to a central, incontrovertible canon. Plus it’s inquisitively characterful enough to speak to a non-musical audience. As the UK begins the long education rebuild with the forthcoming National Plan for Music Education, there are few better starts than to encourage that inquisitiveness.

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This year has seen an influx of books that write persuasively on music and affect—Jude Rogers’ The Sound of Being Human is the standout—and, though not the principal aim of Sound Within Sound, it’s both good and unusual to encounter this approach in a text that ostensibly operates within a Classical Music Book framework. Molleson’s combination of critic, interviewer, writer and broadcaster suits a hybrid approach, breathing life into the characters—and they are definitely characters—and giving them a degree of agency over their stories. There’s a touching conversation between Molleson and Peggy Seeger about her mum Ruth Crawford Seeger; one with pianist Frank Denyer where his demonstrating the power needed to approach Ustvolskaya’s formidable scores unsettles the crockery in an Oxford tearoom; and a moment with Guèbru, where Molleson ends up sight-reading her music at the piano, and singing her Robert Burns’s “Ae Fond Kiss.” Affect lodges itself in the gaps between musical description and cultural context, in a way that feels personal rather than prescriptive.

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But the most intimate moment comes during a meeting with Radigue, where Radigue turns the interview round, asking Molleson gently probing questions about her life, her plans for the future, her work as a critic, and what she really values. (Most of the chapter can be found online as part of the BBC Radio 3 series “The Essay.”) Aside from the rarity in music histories of both a subject talking back and having an author willing to offer thoughtful self-reflection, it’s a prescient moment given the introspective conversations occurring in our community post-lockdown.

A recent Twitter flashpoint from user @tkastenkrause intrigued me. The tweet read, “As a classically trained musician that hates classical music, and mostly plays ‘classical music’ with and by people who hate classical music, I’m beginning to think that something might be a wee bit off within our musical/pedagogical infrastructure.” There’s a fundamental difference between Krause and Molleson’s standpoints—Molleson loves classical music, but hates its boundaries to participation; Krause seems to hate classical music outright—but both viewpoints work on the axis of love and anger, and both are willing to plunge into a reflective conversation, out loud, on where they might sit on that spectrum.

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There’s more. When the Musicians’ Union surveyed their membership in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and found that 34 percent were “considering abandoning the industry completely,” the reason was because of the obvious financial difficulties. I wonder also if the moment when everything stopped was a chance for many working in the music industry to ask themselves, “Am I sure I love this? And is it OK to be here if I don’t?”

In truth, Sound Within Sound isn’t about love, or anger, or hatred, but intrigue. Because what Molleson demonstrates unquestionably is that classical music’s supposed terminality is a patently wrong thought borne of laziness, and how engaging the tiniest bit of musical curiosity can reward plentifully. Some highlights from the listening list include Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “Three Chants” and “Piano Study in Mixed Accents,” Smetak’s “Sarabanda Projeçāo” and Else Marie Pade’s “se det I øjnene.”

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Molleson’s intersectional methodology is mostly watertight, but it occasionally ends up on an uneven keel. In a book full of characters who evade, erase or burn down culturally imposed binaries, it would have been marvelous to read more of experiences of non-binary or trans composers in the 20th century, alongside the detailed experiences of women, motherhood and creativity. Otherwise, it’s a dutifully researched and remarkably funny book—there’s a bit about Stan Getz and a military junta that is just glorious—that will undoubtedly change the way a whole group of listeners listen. ¶

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Sound Within Sound: Opening Our Ears to the 20th Century by Kate Molleson (Faber) releases on July 7, 2022. 

Hugh Morris is a freelance writer and editor based in London.