Book Review: The Rest Is Noise

A critical analysis of composition's recent past, from Bernstein to Queen.

Perhaps the least combative and doctrinaire of American classical-music critics, The New Yorker's Alex Ross turns out to be a brilliant chronicler of the combative, often stiflingly doctrinaire 20th century. His new book, The Rest Is Noise (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30), is insightful and sensitive in its treatment of the connections between social and musical history—neither welding them together in simplistic cause-and-effect patterns nor separating them in a hermetic let's-just-talk-about-tone-rows approach. And he describes the period's music, much of which still bewilders listeners, with a vividness and enthusiasm that makes you want to hear it immediately.

This is a book about composition, not performance: Callas, Horowitz, Gould, and Pavarotti make no appearance, nor do any hand-wringing financial statistics about North American orchestras. But Ross reveals the composers' world as a complex garden of forking paths.

Here's a 1906 performance of Richard Strauss' Salome with Puccini, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Johann Strauss' widow—and possibly Hitler—in attendance. Shostakovich watches Stalin depart early from a performance of his decidedly un-uplifting opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and fears for his life. Benjamin Britten, staggered by a visit to the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen, sets to music a searing John Donne poem ("Batter my heart, three-person'd God")—a favorite of J. Robert Oppenheimer and probably the inspiration for the test site name "Trinity"—on the same day the first bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. (Sixty years later, John Adams turns the poem into a gripping aria for the Oppenheimer character in his opera Doctor Atomic).

The U.S. Army moves in to rebuild Germany's musical infrastructure after World War II and founds the summer composers' institute at Darmstadt, which becomes the avant-garde's ground zero. Aaron Copland gives his Fanfare for the Common Man a title a bit too close for Cold War comfort to a speech by enthusiastic New Dealer Henry Wallace, and later, under suspicion as a fellow traveler, sees his Lincoln Portrait dropped from an Eisenhower Inauguration Day concert. In a Greenwich Village cabaret in 1962, Lotte Lenya sings songs by her husband, Kurt Weill—Schoenberg's old colleague/adversary—and mesmerizes Bob Dylan. Olivier Messiaen, whose Quartet for the End of Time was premiered in a German stalag, visits the canyons of Utah to drink in inspiration for a bicentennial commission.

In addition to tracing these interactions, Ross makes fascinating, why-didn't-I-think-of-that musical connections: The opening horn call of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony is echoed in the four notes Bernstein used for the words "New York, New York!"; Queen's "Weeee will, weeee will ROCK YOU!" is lifted from that Copland Fanfare.

All of this is in refreshing contrast to the usual historical-imperative version of music history as a long series of begats (or, more benignly, using the organic metaphor: musical style grows and develops as a plant or species does), coupled with the damaging notion that art moves forward only when one idiom replaces another, rather than adding to the composer's palette. Ross devotes sympathetic sections of his book to composers who violated this teleology, like Strauss, Sibelius, and Britten: They kept to their own path and were considered reactionary, as opposed to those who followed the crowd and were dubbed progressive.

Insofar as you can make any musical generalizations about our time, it's probably most useful to consider it the end of the Age of Ideology: that long period when what a musical work represented seemed more important than the way it sounded. The period ran from the 1920s, when composers were madly scrambling for banners to march under (jazz, twelve-tone, surrealism, Marxist agitprop), to the '60s, when composers didn't write pieces so much as position papers. Thirty years ago, hard-liner Charles Wuorinen wrote, "The tonal no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream"; today the sentence is only accurate if you change "employed" to "argued about."

Composers these days have other battles to fight, and in its generous broad-mindedness Ross' book is emblematic of this spirit, embodied in a quote from his epilogue: "The impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands." Ross discounts predestination for a view—an absorbingly readable one—in which individual composers made unique decisions in specific contexts under a hugely complex network of internal and external influences. The Rest Is Noise does no less than restore human agency to music history.

comments powered by Disqus