Tuesday, December 30, 2008

20th-Century Music, 21st-Century Reading Experience

The day before I do my annual list-of-books-I-read-this-year post, I want to write about one of my new favorites: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (music critic for The New Yorker). This long, dense, but rarely dull history of 20th-century classical music has been snapping up accolades since its publication last year, and I feel they are deserved. Though I'm not even that familiar with 20th-century classical music (having grown up in a house where "atonal," said by my mother with an inimitable sneer, is a dirty word) I may become an enthusiast after reading this book!

First, I liked that The Rest is Noise cleared up some misconceptions I had about musical history. I knew that Schoenberg was the first atonal composer and became famous circa 1910. I also knew that for much of the 20th century, critics and academics scorned tonal music; and I assumed that Schoenberg was the one who started that attitude. In reality, Schoenberg had his acolytes in the early 20th century, but he wasn't militant about atonality; the guy who really began that was Pierre Boulez, circa 1950.

I got the sense that if Boulez wasn't still alive, Ross would've come right out and said that the young Boulez behaved like a real jerk. Though Ross admires the music he writes about, he sometimes adopts a skeptical tone when discussing certain avant-garde excesses or composers' personal foibles. I like how his voice is not just that of an impersonal scholar: he makes room in the book for quirky tangents on his personal obsessions like trombone glissandos and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.

Ross writes in a way that made me want to hear the pieces of music he describes, and, in the rare instances that I was familiar with the music he discusses, I'd hum it to myself in order to hear in it what he hears. For instance, this is what he writes about "Mack the Knife" (and by the way, if you haven't ever listened to Lotte Lenya's version, you totally should):
"Insidiously hummable... A simple tune circles around and around, coming to rest repeatedly on an added-sixth chord--a C-major triad plus the note A, which was a favorite device of Debussy. That "sweetened" harmony would become a standard device in jazz, but there is something desperate and bedraggled about Weill's use of it here. In the first verse, the main chord is wheezed out on a solo harmonium; thumping bass notes give the melody heavy feet; and throughout, the almost obsessive stress on the note A tends to darken rather than lighten the mood, nudging the music toward the minor mode. "Mack the Knife" is a song chained to one chord. It's a pop tune with no exit."
What's even more cool about The Rest is Noise is that Ross is a longtime blogger who has thoughtfully compiled an online "audio guide" to his book, featuring many of the key pieces of music that he talks about. It's a real 21st-century reading experience! Not only did this immeasurably enhance my appreciation of the book, I expanded my musical tastes. I never guessed I'd be so taken with John Cage's Sonata V for Prepared Piano! (Go here and scroll down to hear it.)

Now I know that as I continue to explore 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise will be my primer and guidebook. I'm already disappointed that in the wake of the financial crisis, San Francisco Opera has canceled the production of Peter Grimes that they were planning for next season, because Ross adores Peter Grimes and spends 10 pages analyzing it. However, SFO will produce Porgy and Bess this summer, and Ross does a 4-page analysis of that opera, which I will surely reread right before I go see it.

The strongest parts of The Rest is Noise are the ones where Ross can most fully explore his thesis of how composers' work intersected with larger trends--artistic, political, and social--in the culture where they lived. Really a great idea to have the middle three chapters be "The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia," "Music For All: Music in FDR's America," and "Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany." The final chapters are a little weaker simply because classical music has become more disconnected from the mainstream culture in recent decades, and so the end of the book focuses more on musical criticism than broad cultural analysis. Still, Ross remains an optimist about the state of classical music and a cheerleader for new composers. Indeed, he's caused me to ask: "Why do I know who the hot young playwrights and novelists are, but not the hot young composers?"

Photo of Alex Ross and his book from The Guardian.

1 comment:

Mark In Irvine said...

I haphazardly stumbled across your blog today, and (as I am SUPPOSED to be working on something), I can't linger ... but I want to comment that I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on "The Rest Is Noise", which is/was probably my favorite read within the last year or so. I look forward to stopping in again to read your words, and to be inspired by them to give a bit more time and focus to my own writing.