Wednesday Book Club: The Rest Is Noise

Wednesday, 29 October 2008 — 11:03pm | Book Club, Classical, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) by Alex Ross.

In brief: Less a textbook history of twentieth-century classical music than a supreme work of historical criticism, The Rest Is Noise is a persuasive treatise on how tumultuous political landscapes shape artistic production. Ross walks a fine tightrope straddling analytical detail and popular accessibility, but nonetheless conveys a continuous lineage of ideas threading the persistent revolutions and counter-revolutions of twentieth-century composition.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Rest Is Noise, keep reading below.)

Alex Ross, the longstanding music critic of The New Yorker (and not to be confused with Alex Ross, the superhero painter of Marvels and Kingdom Come), is a writer I have been following for some time through his essays and blog. The Rest Is Noise is a natural long-form extension of pretty much what I have come to expect from him—insightful criticism of a lucidity palatable to magazine audiences, driven, as the best criticism in any medium should be, by the writer’s immense repository of comparative examples. Here’s a critic who can spot Bartók’s allusions to Shostakovich and Sibelius’s influence on Bernstein at the minutest level of observation, and understands that a composer’s conscious recognition of his forebears is secondary to the manifestation of connected ideas in their works.

Occasionally, casual listeners accustomed to the deceptively easy semiotics of popular music—those who find meaning in the lyrics more than the music itself—ask me to explain how music can represent anything. It’s a very good question: music is unique among the arts for starting from patterns associated with physical properties and working its way towards representation, whereas the visual arts easily draw on the direct mimesis of reality, and literature borrows from the existing correspondence of language to meaning before it challenges those relationships (if it does at all). In other words, the history of music, as we see it, did not begin with the imitation of birdcalls and rippling brooks. Abstract art came first.

Music therefore has two ways of carrying meaning: the mimesis of real-world aural phenomena—Messiaen’s birdsongs, Mosolov’s iron foundries—and a relationship to structural ideas in the music that has come before, be they the metrical pulsations of regular rhythm or the tonal resonances built on the harmonic series. (One thing I learned from Ross was that the foundational thesis of the latter idea—the correlation of resonance and the cognition of pitch—comes from Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.) So an understanding of how composers draw on or revolt against the soundscape around them, be it classical or popular, is not only useful but essential.

The Rest Is Noise is divided into three parts: 1900-1933, 1933-1945, and 1945-2000. On the surface, this seems front-loaded, especially given how the composers assessed in the opening chapters—Richard Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Gershwin, and even early Schoenberg—are nowadays uncontroversial. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring may have incited a riot back in the day, but it is hard to conceive of him now as an affront to the Germanic totem of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner when we are so accustomed to the jarring complexity of his style (whether we know it or not), through film scores in particular. On face, the book’s structure has the appearance of a straw man that capitalizes on, but does not address, the general perception among many musicians and non-musicians alike that twentieth-century music is all method-driven esoterica or, at worst, a noisy morass of absurdism in the key of Cage.

This is thankfully not the case. The book’s chronological organization falls on its centrepiece, the 1933-1945 trilogy of chapters on music in Stalin’s Russia, FDR’s America, and Hitler’s Germany. Appropriate to the function of a keystone, it is also the strongest part of the book. From the outset, Ross’s mission statement is to depict modern music not as a series of self-contained formal innovations, but as the evidence of tremendous geopolitical upheaval:

What the march of history really has to do with music itself is the subject of sharp debate. In the classical field it has long been fashionable to fence music off from society, to declare it a self-sufficient language. In the hyper-political twentieth century, that barrier crumbles time and again: Béla Bartók writes string quartets inspired by the field recordings of Transylvanian folk songs, Shostakovich works on his Leningrad Symphony while German guns are firing on the city, John Adams creates an opera starring Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, articulating the connection between music and the outer world remains devilishly difficult. Musical meaning is vague, mutable, and, in the end, deeply personal. Still, even if history can never tell us exactly what music means, music can tell us something about history. My subtitle is meant literally; this is the twentieth century heard through its music.

The argument is only as good as its supporting evidence, and Ross is careful to derive his analysis from the features of the works themselves—a feat rarely accomplished with much success when criticism is astutely conscious of historical context. At every turn, the book is eager to demonstrate that melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas can serve a function of their own. In the case of Dmitri Shostakovich, it was an ambivalent, ironic function of passive resistance to a totalitarian regime that “disappeared” composers who defied the state-sanctioned aesthetic, just nationalistic enough to perturb the American listeners calling on him to defect. For Aaron Copland, it was a folkloric function in tune with the leftist populism of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ended up putting him in Joseph McCarthy’s line of fire in the anti-communist 1950s before he was adopted, much later, as the soundtrack to the right-wing populism of late-century Republicanism.

As Ross tells it, the debate between popular appeal and the insularity of high art has been going on all century long: we can see the seeds of it in the complicated friendship of Mahler and Strauss. One of the composers we hear about throughout The Rest Is Noise comes from fiction: Adrian Leverkühn from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, who forms a syphilitic pact with the devil in exchange for musical greatness. (“You have to know,” Schoenberg once cried out in a produce market, “I never had syphilis!“) The second half of the twentieth century is in this way continuous with the first: it is absurd to speak of postmodernism, writes Ross, when modernism was itself a plurality of divergent styles rather than a philosophy of singular coherence.

That is not to say it was more of the same—far from it, as we learn from Ross’s whirlwind tour of everything from Iannis Xenakis’s waveform sketches to the computer analysis of Spectralism. But the legacy of the Second World War remains, as the grand tradition of classical music fell from grace on account of its appropriation by (and sometimes, collaboration with) totalitarian ideology. Wagner is so all-encompassing in scope that he “gave impetus to almost every major political and aesthetic movement of the age”—Ross cites examples in liberalism, bohemianism, African-American activism, feminism, and strangely enough, “even Zionism”—but his centrality to Hitler’s brand of fascism is part of a permanent taint on the moral authority of the classical canon, which is overwhelmingly German in origin. In that context, it is easier to understand why composers from 1945 onward sought to rebuild from scratch.

I do not expect that those who have already heard modern music and decided that it is rubbish will change their mind upon reading The Rest Is Noise. Most of the book’s persuasive power rests on its vision of modern classical composition as so diverse an amalgam that surely, a hostile listener’s prejudice hinges on too small a sample. At the very least, it should inspire due consideration of what composers do and why they do it, imploring that we should not dismiss them offhand. Compositional techniques that begin life as formal experimentation eventually sees deployment to meaningful ends. The example from the book that I think of here is Benjamin Britten’s setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which gave me a whole new perspective on what a Schoenbergian twelve-note row can do.

The Rest Is Noise no doubt invites criticism for venial sins of exclusion, though I find that it only benefits from rejecting the brand of history that “take the form of a teleological tale, a goal-obsessed narrative full of great leaps forward and heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoisie.” But once again, the composers that Ross cites as popular outsiders to the typical narrative of progress that leaps from innovator to innovator—Sibelius, Copland, Orff—strike me as uncontroversial inclusions in the twentieth-century canon, to the degree that such a thing exists. (I was pleased, mind you, to see Ross argue that Bernstein’s West Side Story be considered a serious entry to the operatic tradition on the order of Porgy and Bess despite its Broadway origins.)

If twentieth-century composition stands so far apart from what has come before it, and imports so many ideas from popular forms from folk to jazz to rock (which have fed upon it in return), do we have any grounds to consider the typical stable of modern composers “classical” at all? Where does classical music end?

My solution to the quandary of genre is this: that classical music, like most genres of most media, is not defined so much by shared formal concerns than it is by a continuous thread of intellectual conversation. The likes of John Cage and Pierre Boulez are part of this tradition precisely because they revolted against it. This is where Ross’s commanding ear for musical allusion and cross-reference truly shines: he is able to detect how composers put their educational backgrounds on display, consciously or not, and extrapolate a narrative of aesthetic transformation that weaves in and out of history. The evidence is in the music itself.

On a final note: I would advise against reading The Rest Is Noise too far away from access to a computer, as the online audio companion is absolutely indispensable. Ross writes eloquently about the music he cites, explicating its finer threads of pattern, but that is no substitute for hearing the music yourself. Many will also find the audio glossary helpful, as Ross constantly refers to the musical vocabulary of intervals, scales, and chords, without which he would not be able to make his argument.

As someone musically trained, I wish he did not restrain himself to words alone: nowhere in the book is there a musical staff to be found, and I often wanted to see the notation for myself. Instead, Ross makes do with describing themes and motifs as processions of notes; writing them on a staff would have been more expedient for everyone involved, as those illiterate in musical notation would have to swallow his arguments at face value either way. But Ross is in his own fashion a populist, and I am not.


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