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The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

Well, I've mentioned this book a couple of times already. I just finished reading it last night. I really, really enjoyed it. The full title is The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and it's a history of classical music in the Twentieth Century, which I picked up because I've become fascinated with music of the last century and the current one as well. It's over 500 pages (not counting endnotes), and there's a lot to absorb.

Ross begins with a chapter on Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler as exemplars of Germanic late Romanticism, and he centers this chapter on a 1906 performance of Strauss' controversial new opera, Salome, in Graz (it was initially banned from the imperial capitol, Vienna) that was attended by such luminaries as Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and possibly Hitler. This anecdote allows him to set up some threads that are drawn through the fabric of the text all the way to the end, where he is able to connect the dots from Strauss to Schoenberg and Webern through to John Cage and Morton Feldman and on to Steve Reich and Brian Eno. That's just one set of threads, too, but a good example of his method.

With a whole century of music to cover, this is necessarily only a high level overview that skips a ton of material and one or two zillion composers, but that's exactly what I needed to start to get a sense of the field of play. Most of the composers that Ross focuses on are ones I've heard of and heard music by, but a lot of them I didn't know much about and wasn't sure what part of the century they worked in. It's fascinating, for example, to see who studied with whom. Messaien (like Schoenberg) seems to have a had a large influence as a teacher, for example, but so did Nadia Boulanger, who is much less famous as a composer. It's too bad, actually, that Ross didn't tell us more about who she was, but that could be said of many other figures who flash in and out of the book or never flash in at all.

The first half of the book is a remarkable portrait of the various strands of musical modernism that exploded out of the Romantic era, and their interaction with the political developments of democracy, world war, and totalitarianism. The various figures and their music clash and collaborate and disappear and reappear in new contexts throughout this section in constantly surprising ways. The chapters on music in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and in the Cold War aftermath are particularly gripping, as Ross delves into the different ways that composers reacted, rebelled, or complied with the political forces at work. Through all of this he also spends time on various composers, like Sibelius and Britten, who seemed to hold themselves aloof from these events.

The second half of the book (which may well be less than half in actual fact) that's dedicated to the post-War music is less tightly-woven than the first half, probably because the post-War scene saw things fall apart even further. The disintegration of the old European aristocratic elite also saw a disintegration of the infrastructure supporting elite music composition, and the democratization of music created a decentralizing diffusion of styles and audiences and methods of consuming music. To some extent the book reflects a power shift from Europe to America, with the post-War section gradually focusing more and more on American composers and finding the most to say about so-called minimalists such as Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. One of the odder aspects of this, however, is that Ross remarks in passing that Glass is probably the most popular and widely-known composer since Stravinksy, and yet Ross probably spends less time on his music than on that of Reich.

One of the things I've been trying to grapple with as I explore 20th Century music is the way that the avant gardists seemed to take over and populism (along with tonality and melody) came to be denigrated. Ross' book helps with this, both by making me more sympathetic to what avant gardists such as Schoenberg were trying to accomplish and by clarifying that to the extent they took over it was really more in the academic world. Populist music continued to be created throughout the century (cf. Sibelius, Britten, Glass), but for a number of reasons most of it wasn't any more successful at breaking through to audiences than the avant garde was. And many avant gardists were actually disdainful of the whole idea of appealing to an audience, for political as well as artistic reasons. I'm reminded of the quote from the film director Andrei Tarkovsky (not exactly a populist himself) that Glenn Kenny posted to his blog the other day: "Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives." The avant gardists withdrew from serving the people, because to them the bourgeois audience that their predecessors served were fascists.

Well, it's a lot to chew on. I'm tempted to immediately start reading the book again to try to refresh my memory of some of the unknown composers, such as Szymanowski or Henze, that he writes about only briefly. I've already got an enormous list of composers and works to investigate. I have to be careful not to just wildly grab music from every which where. It takes time to listen and to hear. The education continues, and this is going to take a while. Meanwhile Ross's book is highly recommended as a work of cultural history and as a perspective on the 20th Century, whether you're interested in the music or not.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 28th, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
Wow! That was a fast read! I'll have to try it again.
Feb. 28th, 2013 10:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I thought it would take me months, but I was so fascinated I just plowed right through.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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