Tuesday, November 27, 2007

As a matter of fact, it's all noise

The big event this fall in the classical music blogosphere is the October publication of Alex Ross's book, The Rest Is Noise. Ross has had a blog since 2004, and was one of the inspirations for this (and probably many other) blog. His book is extremely entertaining and not especially technical, a history of the twentieth century as told through its music. It's already made the New York Times's list of notable books for 2007. I can only add my voice to the chorus of praise. I found the book irresistable, and only put it down long enough to pull out the music that Ross discusses for another listen, or to search the internet for interesting sounding pieces that aren't already in my collection.

Although the book starts off on extremely well trodden territory with Debussy and Ravel, it quickly veers off into seldom charted backwaters of twentieth century music. In so doing, Ross uses several themes to structure his history. I especially loved the way he used Thomas Mann's fictional Adrian Leverkühn, from the novel Dr. Faustus, as a recurrent foil to the varioius trends of the musical century. The confluence of classical and popular music is introduced early, primarily through the influence of American jazz. Jazz was a critical component not only in American composers such as Gershwin, but through the American presence in World War I, for a number of European composers as well. From Darius Milhaud and Les Six through Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto and into the late 20th century with Steve Reich's acknowledged influence of Miles Davis, jazz and classical music played off each other in a myriad of interesting ways.

Another theme that Ross uses to structure his narrative is the interaction of politics and music. Politics comes to the fore in his central section on music from 1933 to 1945, in three superb chapters on Russia under Stalin, the USA under Roosevelt, and Germany under Hitler. But he continues the discussion even outside of this area. One of the interesting tidbits was about the founding of the international school at Darmstadt, which was funded by the American military operation in Germany after World War II as part of a psychological warfare and information control effort. This is the first time I've seen in print anything mentioning the hostility between the French and the German composers in the years after the war. I've always assumed that the teapot tempest between musique concréte (music made using samples of real world sounds, championed by Pierre Schaefer in Paris) and elektronische musik (music generated completely from electronics, championed by Herbert Eimert in Cologne) was a lingering hostility from the war, and Ross confirms this supposition. But what I hadn't considered was how much the severity of the Darmstadt music was seen as a moral imperative, an attempt to regain some kind of control after the devastation of the war. Stockhausen and Boulez were formative composers for me — listening to Hymnen all alone in front of a fire one night was akin to a conversion — and Ross provided new perspectives on this subject already close to my heart.

The last section of the book covers 1945 through 2000, and Ross is pretty successful in capturing the diversity of compositional approaches. One might consider it to be too diverse, since the only composer to get most of a chapter to himself is Benjamin Britten, while some of those I consider to be giants, such as John Cage, only get a couple of pages. But the book's subtitle, Listening to the Twentieth Century, provides the key. The Rest Is Noise doesn't pretend to be a reference work, but a subjective traversal of twentieth century music. Granted, Ross is in a privileged position. He's the classical music critic of the New Yorker magazine, so not only does he reside in one of the world's musical hubs, he's paid to attend all of the major concert events (talk about a dream job!). Classical music's major genre is opera, so opera is one of the recurrent themes of the book. Ross quotes Cage's comparison of contemporary music to a river delta, so many different streams that they can't be enumerated. Most readers will probably wish Ross had placed different emphases here and there, but I think of Ross as a consummate music geek, sharing some of his favorite music, connecting points between genres and with events in the world at large, and ultimately sending us all back to our record collections to listen again. Only now, we're hearing the music differently because of the way it fit into a larger story, which in turn helps us reflect on why we listen to music in the first place.

1 comment:

DaveX said...

Looks like one for my library to track down for me...