Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Book review: 'The Rest Is Noise'

By Alex Ross (Farrar Straus Giroux, $30)

Ross, music critic of The New Yorker and the most influential writer on music in the blogosphere, has produced a much-needed primer on the main strains of modern and avant-garde composition. On his blog, he usefully adds a selection of representative audio files, which can be accessed here:


The book should reach readers beyond the classical-music orbit, however, because Ross surveys modern art-music in a sociopolitical context (thus its subtitle: "Listening to the Twentieth Century"). Pure or "absolute" musical expression was a stated aspiration of many moderns, but never a reality. Creative expression has always mirrored, or has been filtered through, politics and social trends, and never more so than in the ideologically riven and socially transformative "century of death" (as Leonard Bernstein called the 20th century).

"Although there is no point in trying to restore Schopenhauer’s separation of art and the state," Ross writes, "it is equally false to claim the opposite, that art can somehow be swallowed up in history or irreparably damaged by it. Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves."

Shortly afterward, though, he writes: "In the thirties and forties, the entire Romantic tradition was effectively annexed by the totalitarian state." Romantic music’s guilt by association with fascism and communism was a major – perhaps the major – motivator in compositional trends of the mid-20th century, and of the anti-naturalist or expressionist movement in stagings of 19th-century operas. (In this context, Ross notes one of the century’s most peculiar artistic developments: the CIA’s role in promoting the budding European serial school of composition as anti-communist expression during the years immediately following World War II.)

He neatly accounts for serialism’s failure to connect with listeners: "The serialist principle, with its surfeit of ever-changing musical data, has the effect of erasing at any given moment whatever impressions the listener may have formed about previous passages in the piece. The present moment is all there is."

The book is studded with comparable perfectly formed nutshells of explanation and characterization:

– On art-musicians’ flirtation with jazz in the 1920s: Composers "were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the next day."

– On American academic serialists: "Their theoretical essays could be interpreted as so much barbed wire to keep untrustworthy strangers at bay."

– On spirituality as a reaction to hedonism: "It seems no accident that both Stravinsky and Schoenberg responded to the decade of the twenties – the century’s first extended bout of mass consumption, youth rebellion, and sexual liberation – with, respectively, the Symphony of Psalms and Moses und Aron."

– On minimalism, "found-sounds" composition and other avant-garde manifestations: "Many radical American works of the sixties and seventies were created . . . with the composer setting up a musical situation and sitting back to observe the outcome."

As a survey of 20th-century music, "The Rest is Noise" is provocatively individualistic – more words devoted to Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten than to Bela Bartók or Anton Webern – and decidedly post-modern in its (selective) admission of jazz, pop and non-Western musics to the contemporary canon.

Critics hate to be accused of committing journalism, but how else to characterize Ross’ inclusion of telling or jolting details such as Webern’s embrace of Nazism (unreciprocated, of course); or Christmastime performances of Handel’s "Messiah" at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, led by Olivier Messiaen; or Philip Glass installing a dishwasher in Robert Hughes’ apartment; or John Adams tripping on LSD while listening to Rudolf Serkin play Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy;" or patients in a New York hospital ward asking to hear Arvo Pärt’s "Tabula Rasa" as they died of AIDS?

Or the author's ear for resonant quotes: "I am in a prison," says György Ligeti. "[O]ne wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape." "[T]o hell with the public and with the performers too," says Eliott Carter. "[A] wasteland dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music," Glass says of the European avant-garde.

"The temptation is strong to see the overall trajectory [of composition] as one of steep decline," Ross writes. "From 1900 to 2000, the art experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height."

His view of music’s future is more optimistic: "As the behemoth of mass culture breaks up into a melee of subcultures and niche markets, as the Internet weakens the media’s stranglehold on cultural distribution, there is reason to think that classical music, and with it new music, can find fresh audiences in far-flung places."