Makin’ noise

October 24, 2007

For those expecting my take on noise in libraries, I’m sorry to disappoint. Instead, I am currently reading a new book entitled The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, authored by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Well, perhaps not now, as my current resting place has remained for five days at the chapter on Berlin in the 1920s. Nevertheless, I whipped through the book’s first third over the course of few nights last week.

As a regular reader of Ross’ blog of the same name (with interactive stuff to enhance the reading experience), I had known of this book’s gestation for a while. It sounded quite promising, with a recommendation by Björk and a first chapter focusing on the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (a favorite of mine, as my regular readers already know). It has received many excellent reviews, and (for my fellow librarians) would make a wonderful addition to any collection with its comprehensive discussion and contextualization of 20th Century music.

As in the case of any particularly ambitious work, some people and societal trends receive more attention than others. This seems to be the case with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, to whom Ross devotes an entire chapter. However, Ross advocates for Sibelius’ status as a great 20th Century composer, partially due to the relative lack of serious attention from music scholars. To some extent, this derives from his relative popularity and accessibility among lovers of classical music, at least when compared to more “innovative” composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg himself seems to have established such a worldview himself, believing that he needed to to create a “revolution” for the “emancipation of the dissonance,” and getting a cadre of disciples to spread the good word throughout the rest of the 20th Century. The way I see it, almost 100 years have passed since Schoenberg started fiddling with atonality, and I don’t see Dissonance Day coming anytime soon… at least the way Schoenberg likely envisioned it. We may have grown accustomed to dissonance in music, and some of us may hear the influences of Schoenberg’s experiments (most likely in thriller flicks), but his compositions seem too far-gone to appeal to a broad audience. If the general public places more popular pieces of classical music and opera on a pedestal, or looks upon them with a kind of ambivalent reverse snobbery, Schoenberg’s “revolutionary” vision doesn’t stand a chance of ever coming to pass.

Although Schoenberg’s atonal music has little or no appeal to me (and, believe me, I’ve tried listening to it to find the appeal), his own pretentions at making a grand revolution in music seem quite limited in scope. It almost seemed as though no one else was writing music in different countries and genres. As Ross points out, many other musicians made their own unique contributions to 20th Century music without a ridiculous-sounding “call it arms.” In the chapter “Dance of the Earth,” Ross discusses how composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček, and Maurice Ravel drew upon folk music to create a “music of the body,” more or less in opposition to the more abstract stuff of the previous century. The chapter also touches upon the reception of “Le Jazz” in France towards the end of World War I, and how some composers (including the so-called Les Six) viewed the American musical style as an alternative to “‘theatrical mysticism’ and other Wagnerian diseases” found in the concert hall and opera house (100). Of course, their understanding of Jazz was quite superficial and patronizing.

From “Dance of the Earth, Ross segues into the chapter “Invisible Men” with a discussion of American music in the early 20th Century. He focuses on atonal experimenation, as well as the difficulties faced by African American composers in the 20th Century. As Ross points out, the younger generation of African American artists and activists found it difficult and pointless to carry on the earlier generation’s ideal of developing a so-called “high culture” analogous to that of a white society that would not allow it. American avant gardists may have dismissed of Jazz as a not truly American, but it has become one of the United States’ quintessential musical forms. Jazz musicians also rejected the notion of trying to find “legitimacy” in terms defined by success in the concert hall, as in the case of Duke Ellington (who made it to Carnegie Hall, anyway, though he didn’t need it for validation). In the same chapter, Ross also discusses George Gershwin, who managed to fuse American and European sensibilties into his pieces. Readers also learn of the influence of Alban Berg, a puckish disciple of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, who actually wrote music worth hearing (including his two shocker operas, Wozzeck and Lulu), on Gershwin.

As you can tell from reading this partial review, Ross’ book takes one on a far-flung journey throughout the 20th Century, both in time and geography. And I’ve only gotten to roughly the 1920s and 1930s. (By “roughly,” I refer to Ross’ Godfather II-like flashbacks and flashforwards through time; the Sibelius chapter extends to the composer’s death in 1957.) Also like Godfather II, there are compelling characters, as well as alliances made and broken. As the book enters the age of Hitler and Stalin, I anticipate even more intense Machivellian intrigue… some of which I have probably heard before, but likely with fresh insights from Ross’ perspective. In fact, Ross’ broad look at his topic and characterizations of the many major protagonists make the book a compelling read. I also found validation in my perception (which I thought unique or deluded) that the jazzy opening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue bears some resemblance to the opening of Strauss’ Salome, which seems to inadvertently anticipate Jazz in some places… depending on whose version you listen to. (Ross also owns at least as many recordings of Salome as I do.) Now if someone perceives the more-than-passing resemblance of the Salome character Narraboth’s themes to the “Blues” theme from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, I will be happy.

If you want fresh insights on 20th Century music and a compelling refashioning of the stories surrounding its progression, you must get this book. Although Ross neatly ties together seemingly unrelated composers and musical styles into a compelling narrative, you also might end up entertaining more seriously some of your own fleeting notions of interconnectedness among various styles of music. Schoenberg’s revolution may have failed, but the quieter and more gradual evolution of society to encompass just about everything truly has changed music. (Leonard Bernstein, the great popularizer of classical music who also took Rock and Roll seriously, is my role model for holding such a worldview.) Chuck Berry may have wanted Beethoven to roll over, but I’d like to think that we live in a world where classical, opera, jazz, rock, and everything else can roll together. I suggest The Rest is Noise as the handbook for the real revolution, if one cares or dares to call it that.

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