Monday, December 15, 2008

Review - The Rest Is Noise

I've probably written before that I can't wrap myself around the vast majority of the classical music that was produced in the 20th century. I'm clearly not alone in this, given the empty seats at Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts when "modern" music is featured. This has never been a particularly comfortable position for me, given that I like to experience new things and be fair to them. However, much of this music has always struck me as overly "thought-out," a triumph of a composer's concept over interest in the listener's experience.

So I've spent some time seeking out writing on the subject, hoping that intellectualizing the music would trump some disappointing experiences. (I know, that doesn't seem quite like the right approach, but I embarked on it out of some desperation, hoping to make sense of a lot of stuff that doesn't really sound like music to me at all.) My most recent foray came with the big and highly-acclaimed book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) by New Yorker writer Alex Ross.

And this is a fantastic book, written by someone who clearly has prejudices (a great lover of the music of Britten) and, necessarily, omits quite a bit of the vast landscape that classical music has inhabited over the past 100 years. But it deserves all of the praise it's received, it's well-researched and passionately written, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand this time and its music.

Yet...I'm still not convinced, and the evidence for it is in the book. At the end, Ross talks about how classical music is, while not a mass experience, still vital, and how its cross-currents with other forms of music will keep it alive and important. If he wants to argue that the Internet and other trends will segment this music, allow it to be sustainable without being truly "mass," he may well have a point. But I question the significance of any art form that plays to a few devotees at a time, unable to command the public's attention.

Because the most important concept I came away with was just how reduced classical music has become in recent years. Ross doesn't mention it, but the peak of classical music may well have been realized at the very beginning of the century, in 1901, when the largest mass gathering in the history of Italy took place at the funeral of Verdi. Even after that, however, as Ross makes clear, classical musicians had an incredible hold on the public's attention. Mahler and Strauss were major public figures, Caruso is still considered the major early figure in the spread of the phonograph, and Shostakovich was inextricably bound up with the politics of the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

Any of this is unthinkable today. Classical composers, no matter what effect they may have had on jazz and rap (and some of this seems to me to be a reach on Ross' part), are at the margins of culture, shunted off to the academy, engaged in teaching ever more arcana to students who will follow the same arc.

To be fair, Ross does understand this:
The temptation is strong to see the overall trajectory as one of steep decline. From 1900 to 2000, the art experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height. At the beginning of the century, composers were cynosures on the world stage...No one whispers "Der Adams!" as the composer of El NiƱo walks the streets of Berkeley.
As I indicated above, Ross does try to temper that, but I don't think he entirely succeeds. As I read the first half of this book, I felt I was reading a history of the 20th century through the prism of music. The second, post-WWII half seems detached from any real events, existing in a self-referential vacuum.

Ross senses this, and argues that classical music was inevitably altered by the events of the war; my sense is that he is contending that Hitler's "corrosive love of music" was sufficient to marginalize this art. The Cold War brought on:
Music exploded into a pandemonium of revolutions, counterrevolutions, theories, polemics, alliances, and party splits. The language of modern music was reinvented on an almost yearly basis: twelve-tone composition gave way to "total serialism," which gave way to chance music, which gave way to a music of free-floating timbres, which gave way to neo-Dada happenings and collages, and so on.
Only later does Ross explore what I think is the more essential reason behind this trend, that composers, forced to survive in a world shorn of its traditional supports, moved into the academic world, with the insularity and turf warfare that implies:
Eschewing the audience-friendly gestures of the Copland era, they [American composers, who Ross chooses as the exemplars of the 1960s and beyond] seemed concerned above all with self-preservation, with building a safe nest in a hostile world. Their theoretical essays could be interpreted as so much barbed wire to keep untrustworthy strangers at bay.

I've always felt that modern composers felt trapped, that the likes of Tchaikovsky took tonality as far as it could go, that Beethoven and his immediate successors took standard rhythm to the limit, and that left little room for the novel. Mahler may have been the outward edge of the "standard" world of classical music. So classical music oozed out of those constraints, and seeped in all directions. (Ross points out that some, like Ligeti, recognized the dilemma - quoting Ligeti, "I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape.")

What was lost here was the listener, the audience; I think certain aspects of music are natural to human understanding, and among those is the basis for standard tonality. It's no accident that thirds sound better than seconds. Telling us that seconds represent the chaos of the new millenium, or some such rationalization, doesn't hide the ugliness of the actual sound. There may be some literary point being made when the pianist puts her whole arm down on the keyboard, but that doesn't mean I want to fork over $50 a ticket to hear it.

I'm not qualified to comment on other parts of this book. Some of the descriptions of individual pieces don't mean a whole lot to me, not being trained in music theory ("The first movement of Musica ricercata...consists of nothing more than the tuning note A arranged in various octaves, until a D enters at the end" - that doesn't sound all that appealing to me). Writing about art tends to suffer from this affliction, that it is nearly impossible to convey much of anything about a piece in words - otherwise, why create the art in the first place?

I obviously do not have a great knowledge of this period in classical music, so I can't say much about what was emphasized, what was left out. I like the music of Alan Hovhaness, and he is mentioned only in passing: is that because he is truly not important, or because Ross didn't feel he fit into the major themes of the book? Is it fair to tell the story of this time through Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Britten, and Cage (they are definitely not the only composers mentioned in 624 pages, but I came away with the feeling that they were the most prominent)? I don't know, I'll leave that to others. (I would be fascinated to be around in 100 years to see who would figure large in this story.)

The Rest Is Noise is a major work, and will help anyone understand the role of classical music across the century. I like having the background, but the book didn't accomplish the impossible - it didn't make me fall in love with the music. I suppose I'll have to go on with my quest to find a way in which it can touch me.

[Note: Since much of this is historical, passages can reach out and grab you, even if music does not figure into it at all. Thomas Mann, writing in the 1920s about hyper-inflation:
Nothing was so mad or so atrocious that it could have caused any awe in people anymore. [Germans] learned to look on life as a wild adventure, the outcome of which depended not on their own effort but on sinister, mysterious forces.
Sound familiar?]

1 comment:

Citizen Carrie said...

Although I like some 20th century composers (including Stravinsky and Ives), I really think that all music is a product of its particular era. As such, then of course a lot of people will think classical music (and you might as well include opera) will sound better from the 18th and 19th centuries than the 20th century. I don't know enough about music to go into why I think it happened, but I think that by the time the 20th century came by, classical symphonic music (and you might as well include opera) had just kind of naturally run its course.

In the same vein, I think Broadway and movie musicals reached their peak in the 1940's and 1950's. Musicals from the 1960's to me were kind of stretching things, and then from the 1970's on, as far as I'm concerned, forget about it. There was just something about life (or attitudes)in the 1940's and 1950's that lent itself to musical comedy.

I don't think a symphonic society or a Broadway theater should have to feel obligated to continually present a bunch of new pieces at the expense of older works. Museum pieces have their place in our world. We have about 200 years of pretty darn good classical music to draw from, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying it. There's enough of a repetoire out there for each generation to discover it for the first time, and explore different aspects as we get older and our tastes beome more mature.

Just my opinion, of course. :)

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