Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Rest is More than Noise

DANIEL WOLF, over at his blog Renewable Music, had a recent post on the lack of consensus as to what is essential to know about musical studies. Compared, for example, to the general consensus as to the essential-to-know corpus of calculus, say, or quantum mechanics.

It’s a discussion along the lines of Harold Bloom’s disquisition on the basic canon of western civilization, as he set it forth in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994). The musical “canon” is important; let’s get that out of the way first: music is important to individuals and to their cultures, because it enhances perception, memory, social organization, and for lord knows how many other reasons. And knowledge of the canon, that is the body of musical works (events, performances, concepts) that have been produced over the centuries, knowledge of the canon is important, because it increases one’s awareness of the quantity and meaning (to beg a term) of those works and events.

(Case in point: another recent blog of Wolf’s, and my response to it, here.)

WOLF LIKES the lack of consensus as to the essential canon of musical studies, and in elaborating his reasons he cites two histories of twentieth-century music: William Austin's Music in the Twentieth Century, which “told a fantastic story beginning with Debussy”, and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), which “ tells another compelling story beginning with Strauss's Salome and neither story cancels the other out.”

(Here’s an example of the value of studying music — or any of the liberal arts: understanding the corpus, the canon, requires comprehending the diversity of its discussion; comprehending its sources, necessity, and expression.)

I taught the history of twentieth-century music for a number of years (Mills College, Oakland), studying the first half of the century every other semester, the second half (or what there then was of it) every fourth semester. Austin’s book was one of my texts; another was Peter Yates’s Twentieth Century Music: Its Evolution from the End of the Harmonic Era Into the Present Era of Sound (Pantheon Books, 1967; reissued by Greenwood Press, 1981).

The two books did not “cancel one another out”: in fact, I used both because each needed the other. Over the years it occurred to me from time to time to write my own understanding of the subject, and I’m glad now that laziness (or the press of other matters) prevented what would have been an amazingly overweening effort. (The closest I came was in the short survey written for Mondadori’s Storia della musica, which I’ve put here on the Internet.)

All this by way of getting around to some comments on Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise, read over a month ago, hence not exactly at the front of the mind.

Before reading it I’d heard Ross participate in a public conversation in San Francisco (part of the City Arts series), where he joined Linda Ronstadt and John Rockwell in a discussion moderated by Steven Winn. Ross introduced himself by playing two musical examples: first, a badly distorted recording of an excerpt from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen; then, a quiet and hypnotic excerpt from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps.

These, Ross stated, defined the two poles of Twentieth-century music: complex, dissonant, loud, disturbing (Stockhausen); simple, consonant, calm, in a word transcendent (Messiaen). It was a bogus presentation, of course: three instruments (violin, cello, piano; the clarinet was not present in this excerpt) record better than three orchestras. Gruppen requires acoustical space and real sound; here it had virtual sound via what sounded like a monaural recording. Bogus, but effective: Ross seemed to persuade his audience.

John Rockwell, who is an old friend, had warned me in advance that I would “not like” Ross’s point of view, because it is “antimodern.” Well, as I’ve said elsewhere, I am committed to Modernism; I can’t help it; I was born in 1935; my whole way of seeing the experience of life on earth is colored by Modernism. Ross, I think, judging by his book and judging by his heros and judging even more by the way he writes about his heros, is not committed to Modernism. He is one of those many who are fatigued in the wake of Modernism, for whom it is now necessary to simply relax, to succumb to Beauty.

LET ME BE CLEAR: I like Ross’s writing quite a bit. Much of The Rest is Noise appeared originally in The New Yorker, to which Ross contributes regularly. I enjoyed tremendously, for example, the article on Sibelius that appeared last summer (“Apparition in the Woods,” July 9, 2007). Sibelius is a misunderstood and neglected composer ; Ross largely gets him right, I think, though he writes about the man more than the music.

When Ross does write about the music, he writes in program-note style:
The harmony, meanwhile, drifts away from major- and minor-key tonality. The runic melodies, with their overlapping modes, twine around the chords tha lie beneath them; at moments, the accompaniment amounts to a rumbling cluster, a massing together of the available melodic tones.
(The Rest is Noise, p. 162; describing a passage in Sibelius’s Kullervo.)

The Rest is Noise is literate, thoughtful, fairly enterprising given its subject (music outside the European concert-hall tradition is virtually excluded). Like all Gaul it falls into three parts: 1900-1933, with Sibelius having a whole chapter (of six) to himself; 1933-1945, centered on Russia, the United States, and Germany; an 1945-2000, whose six chapters give outsized attention to Benjamin Britten and Olivier Messiaen.

Part One: 1900-1933
Ross begins with a 30-page chapter on “The Golden Age,” by which he means the decadent late-Romantic early-Modern Germanic era centered on Strauss and Mahler, followed by another 40 pages (“Doktor Faust”) centering on Schoenberg and the development of the 12-tone school. “Dance of the Earth” covers, in 45 or 50 pages, Stravinsky and various other non-Germans: Janacek, Bartok, Ravel, Satie and les Six, and Stravinsky again.

“Invisible Men” looked promising for its subtitle: American Composers from Ives to Ellington. But this is covered in 36 pages, Ross begins with a nod toward Carl Van Vechten, the music critic-novelist-photographer and great friend of Gertrude Stein and the Harlem scene:
In the twenties, for the first time in history, classical composers lacked assurance that they were the sole guardians of the grail of progress. Other innovators and progenitors were emerging. They were America. They often lacked the polish of a conservatory education. And, increasingly, they were black.
But this promise is hardly carried through, apart from an interesting passage on the composer Will Marion Cook. Charles Ives, who I think of as with John Cage one of the two great American composers, is brushed off with six pages; Varèse gets three; Virgil Thomson, two; jazz, another two; Gershwin, seven and a half; Duke Ellington, six.

In this section one of Ross’s subthemes emerges clearly: race and social class. He quotes a particularly interesting remark made by Varèse in 1928: “Jazz is not America. It’s a negro product, exploited by the Jews.” To give him credit, Ross takes the remark seriously, and investigates its meaning. He discusses similar “inherited memories of… suffering” as they might explain “Jewish Americans’s identification with black music” (sic). Race runs away with Ross at times: “…the reality of the New York scene in the twenties and thirties — that Jewish, African-American, and even Caucasian composers were working shoulder to shoulder…,” as if those three categories were parallel and mutually exclusive.

Will Cook, Gershwin, and Ellington get extended treatment partly because they wrote for the stage. It’s easier to write about music for the stage than it is to write about “abstract” orchestral or chamber music. But it is in these passages that Ross begins to grow beyond purely musical history; he writes intellectual criticism. Historical insights grow, for example, out of his treatment of Porgy and Bess and his later discussion of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The parallels are not forced, but it’s clear that the two operas reveal essential differences in the cultures they represent: Gershwin’s opera is direct; Berg’s is subtle; both are verismo.

Ross misses a bet, though, when he deals with Thomson and Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. He comes close to real insights: “The harmonies are straight out of a basic textbook… but they are treated with an intellectual detachment that recalls Cubist sculpture and surrealist collage.” But instead of investigating such substance, Ross’s study of Four Saints lapses into a number of lines repeating popular-press jokes about the opera, and ends dismissively: “Once the Four Saints fad was over, [Thomson] found to his dismay that he couldn’t even get the score published. As a last resort he started writing music criticism to keep his name in front of the public.

(In fact he wrote criticism to support himself in the United States, forced to leave his preferred Paris by the inconvient World War II.)

You can almost feel Ross’s relief when the three dozen pages on American modernism, arguably one of the most fertile foci of 20th-century music history (and John Cage and Lou Harrison are not even introduced among them!), gives way to the twenty pages on Sibelius.

Ross closes the first part of his book with thirty pages on Berlin in the 1920s, a “City of Nets” (the reference of course to Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny), with lucid remarks on the Stravinsky-Schoenberg dialectic (one of those easy categorical armatures for choosing sides, recalling the earlier “wars” involving Gluck and Piccini, Wagner and Brahms), on Alban Berg, and haunted by the Berlin fermentation of the coming world crisis: “[A summer 1929] festival of music, dance, and theater… turned out to be Berlin’s last hour of cultural glory before the decline and fall.”

Ross has devoted over two hundred pages to this fascinating period of music — cultural, in fact — history. Had stopped with this, for the moment (as I will, here), this would have been a useful, solid book, explaining much of the source of issues that would explode in the 1950s and ‘60s, to be suppressed in the closing decades of the 20th century.

I think these issues, these sources, are significant, because I see history again re-spiralling, partly at least precisely because it is either unknown or neglected by those who make it — whether world “leaders” or mere musicians.

The rest of Ross’s book takes up these issues. I’ll try to get to it in later blogs. The Rest is, in fact, more than merely Noise.


Elaine Fine said...

Thank you.

This is the best review of the book I have read to date. I look forward to reading future posts.

Charles Shere said...

You're welcome. I hope to get to the rest of the book soon, but this is a busy time of year...