[19 January 2009]
Extremes become their opposites in time. Schoenberg’s scandal-making chords, totems of the Viennese artist in revolt against bourgeois society, seep into Hollywood thrillers and post-war jazz.
—Alex Ross, from the epilogue to The Rest Is Noise
“From 1900 to 2000, the art [of composition in the 20th Century] experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height,” Alex Ross writes in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. “At the beginning of the century, composers were cynosures on the world stage, their premieres mobbed by curiosity seekers, their transatlantic progress chronicled by telegraphic bulletins, their deathbed scenes described in exquisite detail.”
So what happened? The 20th century happened, as Ross’ book exhaustively details: the rejection of bourgeois aesthetic and exclusivity, of composer as cultural hero; multiple wars, Hitler and Stalin, and the reconstruction of musical taste post-WWII; and the “contradiction” of a modern city like Paris, which “embraced all the fads of the roaring decade ... yet beneath the ultramodern surface a 19th-Century support structure for artistic activity persisted.” The Rest Is Noise is effectively a history of the 20th Century, its new possibilities and grand tragedies, as seen through the prism of the modern-day composer. The soundtrack to history was written as history was being made; music would never be the same, its very identity bent and shaped by the living things around it. When describing Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound (1912), Ross writes, “The story of that opera is essentially the story of this book: the cultural predicament of the composer in the 20th Century.”
Ross’ book, a project seven years in the making, earned its author the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and, more recently, a spot among the 2008 MacArthur Fellows. The accolades are well deserved; Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker, is a direct writer and broad thinker capable of ushering grand concepts to the masses, and his recalibration of musical ideals, removed from pop music’s stranglehold, offers profound reevaluation of both classical music and the century in which it was made. He is mindful of a broad, non-musical audience, and writes about the actual music in a way that most anyone can understand, but still wields command over the music’s sophistication and meaning. (For those looking to really immerse themselves in the experience of musical education, Ross’ website offers up a glossary of terms as well as an invaluable library of streaming musical excerpts from each section of the book.)
The Rest Is Noise threads the innovations and trends of classical music through moments of cultural and political upheaval. The scandals of Schoenberg and Stravinsky are early touchstones of shock that would later evolve into the new rules. “The source of the scandal is not hard to divine; it has to do with the physics of sound,” Ross writes, when discussing Schoenberg. “Sound is a trembling of the air, and it affects the body as well as the mind.” Later, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia would mark “the onset of the most warped and tragic phase of 20th-Century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means”. Those political entanglements would spill over into Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s America, which helped support the arts and remake a modern-day composer like Aaron Copland into a maestro for the masses. Ross winds through the Cold War and the ‘60s avant-garde, through Cage and Britten and Messiaen and Reich, intricately connecting one movement to another, one trend to another, each step forward or back sending ripples into the future.
If I have one minor criticism with the book, it’s that it can be frequently overwhelming—a subject of this magnitude means that there are copious names, dates, symphonies, and plot points, all intersecting within a thick mass of pages. If there’s one small consolation, however, it’s that the book’s continuity tends to foreshadow, recycle, and summarize past and future events; The Rest Is Noise is, in its own way, about the reinventions that follow great cultural crises:
The language of modern music was reinvented on an almost yearly basis: 12-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. All the informational clutter of late-capitalist society, from purest noise to purest silence, from combinational set theory to bebop jazz, came rushing in as if no barrier remained between art and reality.
There is no barrier in Ross’ writing, or in how he thinks about the world and its music; art, it would seem, does not merely imitate life—it is life.