Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Recommended Ages: 15+

All right, I've had this book at least since Borders Bookstore was still a thing (as evidenced by the price sticker I peeled off the back cover a few nights ago), and I remember people telling me I had to read it when I was singing pieces like John Adams' El Niño, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus (and that was a few seasons ago), and the bookmark I stuck in it was actually a ticket stub from a performance of Messaien's Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at UMSL sometime when the year had two oughts in it, so it's fair to say I'm a little late getting around to reading this book. I reckon it doesn't need my review, since it won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. But still, it was very worth my while to read it. In fact, I think it's going to be one of those books that I keep for good, loaning it out with great care to only the most deserving people.

In this book, Alex Ross brilliantly organizes the swarm of musical styles and schools of the turbulent 20th century into a coherent narrative. He emphasizes the careers of several leading figures in each school, telling what happened to music under Stalin and Hitler, music of the avante-garde, modern "classical" or "art" music in America, the minimalists, the serialists, and many more. He richly describes key musical examples and relates them to the most deeply held beliefs, fears, and passions of their creators. He somehow traces all the streams of musical thought into a handful of main channels, often relating widely differing musical events to Richard Strauss's Salome, Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Alban Berg's Wozzeck, and Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. It's a huge, hefty tome - even the paperback weighed heavily in my hands - but once picked up, hard to put down.

I plan to keep using this book, at least, as a bibliography of more in-depth studies of specific slices of the 20th-century-music pie. It also comes with a list of recommended recordings to delve into the highlights, many of which I already love, and some of which I may be better equipped to appreciate after reading this book. It is now clearer to me than ever how (and why) some composers and critics of the 20th century were so dead-set on music that would not, and could not, appeal to the public - though some of them were shocked to find a public that loved their works - and why other composers, whose music had instant popular appeal but was despised by highbrow types, really deserves respect and admiration as great contributions to the 20th century's broad, deep, rich reservoir of cultural treasures.

Ross lays down the challenge for art music in the 21st century: to find the always elusive musical ground between curating, as in a museum, the artifacts of a dead tradition and letting it slide into oblivion, between creating new art works that have no audience and popular entertainments that have no artistic value. Sixteen years into the 21st century, I think the signs are encouraging. What I absorbed from this book goes a good way toward anticipating where that musical ground may lie. But dear Lord, please let it not be another century like the last one!

No comments: