Muse Sick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes by Ian Brennan

This entry is part 35 of 35 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. This one, I read not long ago, after purchasing it through a book bundle. 


This is the first thing I’ve read by Ian Brennan. As John Waters states in his foreword to the book, even when one disagrees with Brennan, what the guy has to say is interesting. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with him all that much, to be honest—certainly less than I expected to. 

The book has two sections, with the first part being basically what’s written on the tin: a music manifesto in fifty-note notes. Each note is short and to the point, and tends to be a generalized statement about music, the music industry, celebrity, music reception, and so on. 

Brennan’s argument reminds me a fair bit of my own about music and the unhealthy  things that modern (i.e. late capitalist) cultures have done to it, though I’m not sure how much time Brennan would actually have for my arguments, or the way I expressed them. (Brennan’s found a way to make similar observations that make people stop and think instead of react with outrage, I think.) Whatever the differences in our tastes and beliefs, though, I find most of his “notes” quite correct, especially when he talks about the pernicious influence of capitalism on music, about the need to support less-well-known musicians, about the way most of musical culture is about identity and branding rather than about the music itself. 

The difference in emphasis between his view and what I’ve written is that where I argue for better music education as a partial solution, Brennan argues more directly that people should simply be listening more broadly. This is not surprising: he argues that music is in everyone—by virtue of the fact that languages are musical and most humans naturally and effortlessly learn language. This is true…  but, well, math is in everyone too, and yet learning arithmetic is helpful in unlocking that facility. Literacy (even in oral traditions) tends to depend on some kind of formal education (albeit not necessarily—in fact, probably not—classroom education), and tends to help one to appreciate the subject of study better, if the education is good. (Which is, really, what I think education is supposed to be: a way of making space and time in people’s lives for being immersed in things other than work or entertainment, in a way that allows them to better understand, appreciate, and participate in the world. Schools are probably a terrible place to try attempt humane education of any kind, including music education.) Knowing how to actually listen to music is,. I suspect, a dying tradition in our world: like Brennan, I think we’re losing the ability because we don’t need it given the kind of music that we’re surrounded by most of the time. (In most capitalist societies, tuning out the omnipresent dreck that passes for music is a much more useful ability.) 

John Waters is right in the forword: when I reached the end of the “notes” section of the voice, I did feel energized, ready to listen with refreshed ears. But then, I’m the guy who was shoving dubbed tapes of Toure Kunda and Balinese kecak field recordings at my fellow music undergrads and saying, “Check this out! Listen to this!” so he was singing to the choir, in my case.  

The second part of the book is a departure from this approach. It’s comprised of accounts of field recordings that the author has undertaken, and pretty much right away it’s clear that Brennan does put his money where is mouth is. The field recordings he discussed show the best kind of political consciousness motivating his choices on where to put his energies: supporting those unknown to the world (or even sometimes to their own homelands), often in places where music has arisen as a tool of survival and speech in the face of tragedy. 

A pair of musicians named Soubi and Mmadi on the Island of Comoros:

The Good Ones, a musical group that formed in the wreckage left by genocide in Rwanda:

… and a workshop group of people with Down’s Syndrome (including the author’s sister):

The War Women of Kosovo, who bore witness to their heartbreaking experiences of during the war in their homeland (trigger warning for unspeakably horrific war crimes). 

The Malawi Mouse Boys, whose music I wish I could share with my father, who would have enjoyed a little music from the place he grew up, and especially to hear some singing in Chichewa after so many years:

And, finally, the elderly Pakistani musician Ustad Saami, a master singer:

Brennan’s accounts of seeking out and recording these musicians is blunt, honest, and thoughtful: he notes at times how the violence he’s seen in his life, he saw back in America; about how the reverberations of genocide in Rwanda have echoed through his own life (through the family of his Rwandan wife). The accounts also demonstrate what can be discovered if one is willing to put just a little effort into looking beyond the most directly available offerings of our media/entertainment overlords, to find new sounds and traditions and artists who are actually deserving of the word. Like Brennan, I find most “professional” music mediocre, the dry and dead hinterland that lies between amateurs and great masters of the art.   

The epilogue is sort of a wandering meditation on train lines—how they mattered in Brennan’s own family, but also how they mattered as routes of cultural transmission for American culture, how trains moved people across the country and forced them to find a common language, but also directly impacted the aural vocabulary of American musics since the first trains roared across the country’s landscape. 

I got this book as part of a bundle, specifically for the reason that I wanted to read this book, and it was well worth it. I hope to eventually check out Brennan’s other work as well. 

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