Thursday, January 31, 2008

Book Review: The Rest is Noise

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

Twentieth Century music, for the uninitiated, can be an iron maiden on the ears. Or better yet, one of those torture boxes they use in Dune to test whether an individual is human or not. To many people without academic training in the methods of the Twentieth Century, it is precisely this that is lacking in last century's pantheon of composers: humanity.

Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker (and author of a great blog, see "Good Reads" list), has attempted to bring thorny modern music to the neophyte and a deeper understanding to the cognoscenti in his debut book, The Rest is Noise. Grant it, this is not at all the first book that has tried to make this recondite repertory accessible. Authors often assume, good musicologists that they are, that understanding music only goes as deep as one's understanding of structure. Therefore, for the masses to "get" twelve-tone music, they simple need to learn the methods. Many introductory appreciation texts for this type of music focus purely on rows, retrogrades, inverse retrogrades, transpositions, and a lot of other stuff more fitting for a math than a music book. Ross, luckily, abandons this failing course.

First, a brief summary of the book. The lens through which the reader views the century in music is Richard Strauss, the great master of late Romanticism and early atonality. We begin the journey in turn-of-the-century Vienna, when society was on the verge of collapse and music was undergoing rapid mutation (connection?). Strauss is a fascinating bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries: his early years (1880s and 90s) were filled with orchestral grandeur and Wagnerian pomp, but the man lived all the way until the end of WWII, when tonality had disintegrated along with his native Germany. The story of The Rest is Noise, then, is the tale, seen through an individual's eyes, of violent change. In swift and dramatic colors, it is the portrait of the birth and death of states, styles, and sentiments. Ross takes us through all the classics of 20th century music, from The Rite of Spring to Shostakovich's coded symphonies, the solitude of Jean Sibelius to John Adams's Doctor Atomic of 2006. A full retelling of this fascinating tale is far beyond the scope of this post, and I don't want to labor the details. Suffice it to say, it pretty much hits it all (including obscure works like "I Am Sitting in a Room," the subject of one of Ruxton's posts on this blog).

The history itself isn't so revelatory, as Ross is a journalist and not a scholar. It is Ross's telling of it that is so exciting. First off, the reader will notice virtually none of the technical language that accompanies many books on the subject. Instead of buying into the idea that one must understand structure in order to appreciate music, Ross transmutes the sounds of the pieces he talks about (not the scores) into the language of poetry. Instead of row permutations, he gives us colors; instead of dodecaphony, he gives us precise and witty metaphor. It is clear that Ross wants his reader's to grasp this music with their hearts, not just their minds.

This leads us to another fresh aspect of the book, and indeed of Alex Ross in general: there is no respect for the high/low art distinction. Music is music, and unfortunately all the arcana typically associated with 20th century music doesn't need to be there at all - in fact, it impedes society's access to great music by turning it into an Ivory Tower. Ross has published articles that compare Monteverdi to Sade; he has likened Gyorgy Ligeti to Sonic Youth. And his attack on the traditional dichotomy of high/low (classical/pop, etc.) also finds its way into his presentation of the composers' lives. This is no Big Man history, with powerful individuals driving Progress; it is a humble story of both human accomplishment and frailty. In one of the more telling anecdotes of the book, he tells of the famously curmudgeonly Arnold Schoenberg pompously decrying: "if it is art, it is not for the people; if it is for the people, it is not art." Yet, the happiest his son ever saw him was when the Schoenberg family was driving through Big Sur and they stopped at a fruit stand and heard Vertlarkte Nacht (one of his early pieces) playing on the radio. Normal Joes listening to his music on the radio made the father of twelve-tone music giddy.

Another common approach to the telling of history is to focus on innovations and progress, a tale that is often linked all too closely with the Big Men. In this regard, Ross's book is an epiphany. Rather than explaining the twentieth century as a series of aesthetic and historical ruptures, he charts the years and the music through connections and similarities. Many authors are content with explaining the technical novelty of Anton von Webern's serial language and his influence on that compositional school; Ross tells us how Webern inspired La Monte Young (the father of minimalism) to look towards the atoms of music and build up from there; Young, in turn, inspired the Velvet Underground in their heady psychedelic rock, often based on Young-like drones; the Velvet Underground influenced virtually every rock act out there today. In another fascinating story of influence and musical connection: Stravinsky drew on Russian folk songs for The Rite of Spring, transmuting the material through his cutting, modernist tongue; both the folksy elements and the modern spikes made their way into the playing of Charlie Parker, who worshipped Stravinsky. Music is a circle, not a bunch of lines.

I've read a lot of cultural histories of music, but I must say that this is my favorite. For the academy-trained musician and the neophyte alike, Ross reveals the fundamental humanity of some challenging work. In his masterly hands, very noisy music becomes poetry.


ruxton said...

You hit a major artery with that article, Zach. One of my observations about the musical environment is how so much of it is built on intimidation. It runs the gamut from the big buisness of Hollywood to the structure of academia to the interaction between two peers. If you're an aspiring musician you are inevitably going to deal with people getting under your skin. You'll have professors say you'll never make it, only to have department heads chastise you for ripping said professors a new asshole. You'll find scrutiny from record execs about your weight, your image, the bass player in your band maybe being there since the beginning but inevitably needing to be replaced. And then there's the competition between your peers that can bring out the most evil sentiments you can devise. And it's all bollocks. For something that's supposed to unite us, give us cultural identity, and most of all pleasure, it's hard to see how music is created at all. I've found the best music comes from partnerships, from sharing ideas, from humility. Reading about Arnold Schoenberg simply taking a trip with the family helps to break down these illusions of grandeur and bring musicians back to where they belong, with people.

By the way, I would suggest everyone click on the Good Reads link of the same name to read Alex Ross' definition of Noise. The title of the book can come off as being a bit high-brow, but after reading his article on Sonic Youth & Cecil Taylor you understand better where he's coming from.

Mawally said...

Wow, this interpretation of music could make classical music actually relevant! With the aging of the audience for symphony orchestras and the remarkable ignorance of so many young people about the classics, I fear that the classical repertoire has, for many, becoming quaint and arcane. To tie it all musical history as one continuum on the scale of the human desire for musical expression and to see the linkages between the old and the new (none of whom I recognize, being on the “old” end of the spectrum, but whom I am interested in investigating after reading this book review), revitalizes the relevance of both ends of the scale. I don’t know what widespread effect this book will have and whether or not it can help save orchestras around the country, but it could definitely have an impact on this “experienced” listener.