The modalities of the modern music memoir

Franz Nicolay’s 'The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar' and Julian Barnes’ 'The Noise of Time' take refreshing approaches to the genre.

For fans of a musician, a memoir can offer a thrilling peek behind the curtain. At their best, they allow the reader-listener to hear music in a new way and to satisfy the insatiable urge for access — two traits that form a frequent comorbidity of fandom. One such example is Bruce Springsteen’s recent Born to Run (Simon & Schuster).

The disparate modalities of music and the written word have long been a subject of tautological observation, per the witticism regarding dancing about architecture. Music, by virtue of its ephemeral nature (to say nothing of the structures of culture and capitalism that have been built around it), possesses a unique capacity to embody liminal space within a constellation of ideas. Springsteen’s Born to Run is as much about a kid from New Jersey becoming a Rock icon as it is a keen, windblown and frequently rhapsodic portrayal of vulnerability and depression, crafted with the same fiery lyricism as his songwriting.

But for all its merits (and there are many), it conforms to an expected formula of the autobiographical music memoir: struggling artist rises from obscurity and grapples with the dark side of fame. There’s nothing wrong with this. But it’s refreshing when a book comes along that explores other possibilities.

Two recent ones that do so are Franz Nicolay’s The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar (The New Press) and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time (Knopf). 

After leaving his job with the Indie Rock band the Hold Steady, multi-instrumentalist Nicolay, a self-described Slavophile, set out with a banjo and accordion in 2012 to tour Eastern Europe, Russia, the Balkans, Ukraine and Mongolia. While his book ostensibly is a memoir of this tour, the bulk of the text is given to ruminations on history, literature and sociopolitics.

Nicolay devotes a keen eye to documenting the Punk and DIY scenes that thrive, to varying degrees, in post-Soviet states. Through a prism of eccentric (and sometimes frightening and frequently hilarious) encounters, he illuminates the lives of the people who comprise the countercultural diaspora. It is these encounters, along with his dry and often scholarly wit, that propel the narrative and make for the book’s most memorable moments.

He puts these colorful encounters into a copiously footnoted context of the history of preceding travel literature; in many ways, The Humorous Ladies of Border Control is as much about a journey through obscure corners of travel literature as it is about Europe and the former Soviet Union. 

In author Barnes’ quasi-biographical novel The Noise of Time, the Man Booker Prize-winner explores the inner life of Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian and one of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers. Although the book does chronicle true events, Barnes chooses to inhabit the headspace of the composer as he navigates three “Conversations with Power.”

We meet Shostakovich after his first such Conversation with Power — a promising young composer standing in a daze, having just read a damning review of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The reviewer in question is Joseph Stalin, and in an instant Shostakovich’s status as a celebrated composer has transfigured to one awaiting certain exile.

Of course, as any listener of Classical music will know, this did not happen and through a twist of fate, persistence and good luck, the young composer went on to not only win Stalin’s good graces, but also to imbue his works with individuality and even a few subtle jabs, via musical double-entendre.

Two more such Conversations span the composer’s distinguished career, and they unfurl with a tense, building slowness. But rumination is the thrust of Barnes’ compact prose. The reader is left in a similar state of rumination. To whom does art belong? What is its role in history, in society? 

Shostakovich’s response, via Barnes: “Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it… Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?” ©

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