Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The rest is noise, by Alex Ross

If you want to know more about Twentieth Century classical music, read ‘The rest is noise’. This book has already won widespread plaudits, including being the winner of the Guardian First Book award 2008. It is a chunky tome – you need strong wrists to read in bed! The main text ends on page 591, to be followed by about 100 pages of notes, recommended listening and a good index.

Ross has an astonishing breadth of knowledge, conveyed with clarity, so his is a very educational book. The classical music of the last century contains many streams and reputedly difficult pieces that make us wary. This fractured, controversial and confusing musical landscape needs a guide, a Virgil to lead us through hell, and Ross is that man. He is a likeable, positive and enthusiastic companion, and will surely lead you to listen to more of the music he recommends, as I have done under his influence.

Ross does not treat music in isolation, but sets it in a vivid context of the history of the times. Politics, war, literature, philosophy and so forth influence music, just as music influences other spheres of our society. He is most enlightening on the birth of modernism before the first world war, the negative impact of the Nazis, the terror under Stalin, the cultural battles of the cold war and so on. By reading this book, you should have a better overview of many themes of 20th century history.

The definition of ‘classical’ music is deeply difficult in the 20th Century, but the author has a clear idea of what is the serious music that he wants to tell us about. He is catholic and eclectic in his tastes, with no trace of snobbery. He acknowledges and enthuses about the influences of music hall, jazz, blues, folk music, bebop, rock, electronic music and so on, as well as explaining how serious music influenced and informed them, in turn. As he wisely says in his epilogue: “Music history is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe, a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and continuous”.

The story opens with the dramatic and distinct impacts of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, while showing their connections back to Wagner and Debussy and so on. He explicates the revolutionary newness of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and their followers. The galvanic effect of the rule-breaking dissonances, atonality, rhythms and other innovations of that era can be appreciated from his narrative. However, none of us in this age can participate in the shock to audiences at, for instance, ‘Salome’ in 1906 or ‘The rite of spring’ in 1913, because our ears are already so attuned to the full range of modern styles and techniques. The audiences of a hundred years ago would have been purely soaked in what you could call the (first) Viennese school of classical music, and so more easily shocked.

Excitement to the ear comes from when the composer violates the established rules, gives us what we had not predicted. This is nothing new – Mozart famously wrote a ‘dissonnance’ quartet and revolutionised the subject matter of Opera with ‘Figaro’. Artists like Schoenberg could enjoy the fight to break through conventions, and achieve fame / notoriety within intellectual circles. The musical history of the twentieth century could be (simplistically) described as successive waves of breaking convention, even insulting the audience, until you reach the extreme techniques of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwhistle et al. However, the problem is a reductio ad boredom. When all the rules are broken, or there are no rules, then the excitement of breaking the rules disappears, leaving a sort of nothingness.

I reflected that the exciting iconoclasm occurring in music was mirrored in parallel events in painting (think of Picasso), poetry (for example Thomas Eliot), architecture (such as Frank Lloyd Wright) or even science (obviously, Einstein). There is an astonishing sense of the zeitgeist flowing in the same direction. Ross does not stray off his own patch; these are my own observations. Here again, free form poetry can be seen to tend towards boredom, compared with the admirable felicity of expressions within tight conventions, such as Alexander Pope.

Ironically, composers were just as much seeking to tie themselves within new rules, such as ‘12 tone’ or ‘total serialism’ or matrix compositions. Ross is not dogmatic or disparaging of many of these movements – he seems to find merit and interest in nearly everything. Naturally, with so much to choose from, he concentrates his writing on what he personally likes. He admits that he cannot cover all composers in any depth, and makes bold selections. For instance, he devotes many pages to Benjamin Britten, asking us to enjoy the analysis of the one British artist as representative of many other worthy artists from the same country.

One can argue about who you would like to see included in this tome – and each special plea would make the book longer and heavier. Clearly Ross had to draw the line somewhere. Well, I personally would have liked more coverage of Alexander Scriabin, Edward Elgar and Nicholas Maw. Possibly they do not fit the themes or the chapter headings, but they produced individual works that must surely rank as supreme achievements of the century, namely and respectively ‘The poem of Ecstasy’, ‘Cello concerto’ and ‘Odyssey’.

I like the way Ross pauses from the broad narrative to describe individual pieces in detail, such as Strauss’s ‘Salome’, Shostakovich’s ‘Fifth symphony’, Ellington’s ‘Black, brown and beige’, Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of time’ or ‘ Berg’s ‘Lulu’. These are high quality sleeve notes and engender a hunger to listen to the music. I responded by buying CDs of some of the pieces, and made enjoyable discoveries. Illustrating the point I made earlier about the modern ear being already attuned to the revolutionary techniques, I found Schoenberg’s ‘5 pieces for orchestra’ and Webern’s ‘6 pieces for orchestra’ very worthwhile – not shocking. Certainly one should not treat this music as background music – it deserves attention – but that applies to all serious music.

He has many arresting turns of phrase and witty thoughts; for example: “Cocteau and Poulenc were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the following day.” He comes up with connections, facts and interpretations that are enlightening, whether it is pointing out the high proportion of gay artists, the influences of Jazz (and the influences on Jazz) or the brilliant description of minimalist music (Reich etc) being like driving along the interstate highways of America.

Read this book for education, enjoyment and elevation. If you have patches of knowledge of Twentieth Century music (as I do), Ross will tie them together for you, give them more resonance and encourage you to listen to more. He would be someone I would like to join for a fortnight’s journey on the trans-Siberian express (with an ipod to listen to the music samples as we went along). I feel a long and rewarding journey has been completed by reading this book through.

Thanks to my brother, who gave ‘The rest is noise’ to me as a birthday present, and who is way ahead of me in his knowledge of music.

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