Friday, December 28, 2007

The Rest is Silence

TO FINISH THIS LONG LOOK at Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise:

Part Three: 1945-2000

The Rest is Noise is formally symmetrical: the third and final section, like the first, is cast in six chapters; they span something like two hundred pages; Richard Strauss presides over the first pages as he had at the outset; once again, one of the six chapters is devoted to a single rather surprising figure: Benjamin Britten this time.

But where Part One covered the first third of the century, Part Three must deal with more than half of it: the years following World War II. And while Ross is more than dutiful about “covering” the many “styles” of postwar concert music (always concentrating on the music of Western Europe and the United States), he does not leave the impression that he has really understood the extent to which that Twentieth Century ended having seen a profound change in the nature, the intention of that music.

But before complaining that The Rest is Noise is not some book other than the one its author had in mind, let’s look at what it actually is in this third part. The story resumes in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where a Jewish lieutenant meets Richard Strauss in his villa, intending to occupy it as a command post. It is the morning of April 30, the day of Hitler’s death. In three poignant paragraphs Ross describes the wartime experiences of Stockhausen, Henze, Zimmermann, Berio, Xenakis, and Britten. Strauss had not had a bad time of it in his Alpine villa.

Germany was ruined; “a primitive society such as Europe had not known since the Middle Ages,” Ross notes; and he devotes a fair number of pages to documenting the American effort at reconstruction. It’s not widely known the part music played in this, specifically in the de-Nazification of the country. The American occupation was headed by General Lucius Clay, whose
background combined strict West Point training with a whiff of New Deal idealism… The military governor wanted to reshape and lift up Germany as Roosevelt had reshaped and lifted up America. At a conference in Berchtesgaden, near Hitler’s old redoubt, Clay said, “We are trying to free the German mind and to make his heart value that feedom so greatly that it will beat and die for that freedom and for no other purpose.”

The project of freeing the German mind went by the name ‘reorientation.’ The term originated in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters… Psychological warfare meant the pursuit of military ends by nonmilitary means, and in the case of music it meant the promotion of jazz, American composition, interational contemporary music, and other sounds that could be used to degrade the concept of Aryan cultural supremacy.
Strauss and Pfitzner, whose careers during the Third Reich had made them problematic under the Occupation, were downplayed; Sibelius too: “likely to reawaken feelings of Nordic supremacy.” Mendelssohn was returned to the German concert platform, and there was “great emphasis on American music… major works of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson…”

One of the most significant undertakings of the Occupation’s “psychological warfare” through musical re-orientation was its support of the International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt. The idea was to allow young composers to become familiar with the music that had been banned by the Third Reich. There, in 1949, Schoenberg’s 75th birthday was observed with performances of three major orchestral pieces and two late chamber works. More significant for what was to come, Olivier Messaien presented his Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, whose scales of durations and loudnesses may have been inspired by the complex structures of pitches in Indian ragas, but went on to inspire the young Stockhausen and Boulez to experiment with the total “precomposition” of all aspects of instrumental music: pitch, duration, loudness, instrumentation.

Ross does not confront those implications here, though: instead he closes this chapter, “Zero Hour: The U.S. Army and German Music, 1945-1949”, with the opposition of two composers who had stood for diametrically opposed “schools” of musical thought, Anton Webern and Richard Strauss.

Ross recounts the accidental killing of Anton Webern, shot by mistake in the dark by a nervous G.I. cook. To my taste Ross’s description of Webern sounds scornful:
Webern had long languished as the most obscure and arcane of the Second Viennese School composers, the one who made Berg sound like an over-the-top Romantic. After death, Webern acquired a saintly, visionary aura, the super-refined surfaces and intricate design of his works foreshadowing avant-garde constructions to come… When Webern’s Piano Variations were performed at Darmstadt in 1948, young composers listened in a quasi-religious trance. That Webern had been possibly the most avid Hitlerite among major Austro-German composers was not widely known, or went unmentioned.
Scornful, and provocative: this charge of “avid Hitlerism” is not supported by any evidence elsewhere in Ross’s book, and his otherwise copious annotations do not account for it. Berg was perfectly capable of making his own music sound as it does, of course; and one wonders also about the source of the knowledge of the mood of the audience of the Piano Variations.

The Strauss ending is gentler. He had opened The Rest is Noise with his discordant Salome; he closes this chapter with his valedictory Four Last Songs and nostalgic Oboe Concerto, which unaccountably remind Ross of “the fleet-figured, Mendelssohnian scores that the composer had written in his youth before he fell under Wagner’s spell.” To my ear it is tender and regretful, closer to the Marschallin’s soliloquy in Rosenkavalier.

ROSS TURNS NEXT to “Brave New World: The Cold War and the avant-Garde of the Fifties,” and this is where I came in, so this is where I sat up and paid attention. He begins with two paragraphs of challenge, quoting Morton Feldman (that most intelligent of avant-gardists) quoting Charles Péguy, of all people — “everything begins in mystique and ends in politics” — and leading next to a brilliant if cursory précis of the entire first half of the century, which
began with the mystique of revolution, with the mind-bending harmonies and earthshaking rhythms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The process of politicization was already under way in the twenties, as composers competed to stay ahead of changing trends and accused one another of complicity in regressive tendencies. In the thirties and forties, the entire Romantic tradition was effectively annexed by the totalitarian state. But nothing could compare to what happened when the Second World War ended and the Cold War began.
In rapid succession (and a single sentence) Ross touches on twelve-tone composition, total serialism, chance music, “a music of free-floating timbres”, “neo-Dada happenings.” But what chiefly fuels Ross’s survey in this chapter is “The dominant aesthetic, in European and American music alike,… one of dissonance, density, difficulty, complexity.” Schoenberg, of course, is the figurehead here, elevated by the “[politican] of style” Theodor Adorno.

A couple of pages follow, describing the exceptional premiere, in 1941, of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps in the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer was then incarcerated; and this leads naturally enough to the introduction of Pierre Boulez, “a kind of intellectual dreamboat”at first glance but one who was “angry with the whole world,” in Messaien’s words, one whose First Sonata is marked by “jabbing, crashing, keyboard-spanning gestures, who takes violence as the leitmotif in Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux, and for whom above all nuance is to be avoided, abruptness to be paraded, in his polemical essays as well as his music.

(Oddly, the quality that struck me most on first hearing Messaien’s music — Le Marteau sans maître, in a performance in 1963 or thereabouts — was its nuance, poise, and lyricism.) [Jan. 11, 2008: of course this is a slip: for "Messaien's" read "Boulez's," and thank you, John Whiting.]

It is in this context that Ross elaborates on Messaien’s pathbreaking Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, describing its working well enough for a lay reader to understand. Ross is very good at this kind of program-note writing; he has a gift for narrating abstract musical lines in English sentences.

Oddly, though, he seems to find it necessary to turn to subliminal metaphor with Boulez, whose
early works, notably the two sonatas, Structures, and Le Visage nuptial, are perhaps best understood not as intellectual experiences but as athletic, even cerebrally sexual ones. Michel Foucault, the great theorist of power and sexuality, seemed almost turned on by Boulez’s music, and for a time he was the lover of Boulez’s fellow serialist [Jean] Barraqué. “They represented for me the first ‘tear’ in the dialectical universe in which I had lived,” Foucault said of the serialists. What drove Boulez’s own rage for order remains unknown.
Ross turns almost relievedly to John Cage, “capable both of great violence and of great tenderness,” whom he writes about in three generally sound and sympathetic pages only occasionally marred by lapses into journalese and shorthand. (“For Cage, the classical tradition was worn-out kitsch ripe for deconstruction, in the manner of his intellectual hero, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp.”

The chapter then takes up the New York School: Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown; Happenings; the silent 4’33”, and the beginnings of tape music. Here Ross is capable of penetrating (if familiar) but frustratingly undeveloped insights — Earle Brown’s “open-form pieces imported some of the energy of bebop”; “certain of Cage’s chance pieces ended up sounding oddly similar to Boulez’s total-serialist pieces.”

Ross follows Copland and Stravinsky into their twelve-tone essays, noting that in Stravinsky’s late sacred works “the rows are stacked in favor of consonant chords: triads flicker like shafts of light in a darkened church.” But a more impressive passage returns to Darmstadt, with good basic coverage of the emergence of Stockhausen and Xenakis. I think he misses a point in his interpretation of Stockhausen’s Gruppen:
What separates Gruppen from its monumental Romantic predecessors [Ross had cited Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner] is its relative emotional neutrality; it lacks the grandeur and sorrow that Thomas Mann identified with Wagner. German music was renouncing its ‘“special path,” its Faustian urge, and joining the cosmopolitan frenzy of the postwar world.

THAT’S NOT BAD: but the renunciation of “Faustian urge” can also be read as transcendence of ego. The question of Stockhausen and Ego is a vexing one; no one could call him egoless, but his music certainly tends to egolessness. Alex Ross, in The Rest is Noise, does not: his book is personal.

This is no fault; indeed it contributes to the book’s appeal and persuasiveness. There are drawbacks, of course: Ross lapses, now and then, into the pathetic fallacy, attributing emotions to musical events, as in a discussion of Xenakis’s Metastaseis: “The string clusters are soon inflitrated by sneering trombone glissandos and other razzing brass sounds.”

Perhaps this reveals a writer who reads human motivations and interpretations into historical processes; perhaps it is his humanistic bent, his human-centered reading of the history of music, as apart from the humans and human forces that produce it, that veils his view of music as it evolved in the course of the Twentieth Century.

As if fatigued by the confrontation with the profound changes wrought (or, better, witnessed) by Cage and Stockhausen, Boulez and Feldman, Ross retreats next to studies of the careers of Benjamin Britten and Olivier Messaien, finding their operas easy subjects for his descriptive gifts.

Another chapter breezes past the American avant-garde, with proper (if insufficient) attention to the West Coast. Ross is unpersuaded by the music, falling back on journalistic put-downs: “Ingrained in [Lou] Harrison’s personality was a love of musical merriment, of hummable song and rollicking dance.” (His strong, sweet, elegiac component is not mentioned.)
“[Morton Feldman] insisted that composition could not actually be taught, and in his classes he meandered all over hee map — one eccentric assignment being to analyze Sibelius’s Fifth.” (But Feldman understood the significance of Sibelius’s musical landscapes to the long lines of “Minimalist” structures.)
The West Coast gives place to New York Minimalism; Terry Riley leads to Steve Reich; Ross works to find coherence in the increasingly pluralistic scene, but quite rightly expresses reservations about the process:
As with most A-B comparisons between music and other arts, the linkage [between the music and the painting scenes in New York] is partly a matter of intellectual convenience. Minimalist painting and sculpture remained arts of abstraction. Minimalis music, with its restoration of tonality, rejected abstraction…
Ross closes with a chapter centered on John Adams, whose music, after an early mastery of repetitive-structure process (Phrygian Gates, for example) settled into a serious, methodical construction of a healing return of concert music to the long tradition that ran from Monteverdi through Schoenberg.
This has been a book about the fate of composition in the twentieth century. The temptation is strong to see the overall trajectory as one of steep decline. From 1900 to 2000, the art experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height.…

Perhaps… classical composition is being sustained past its date of expiration by the stubborn determination of those who perform it, those who support it, and, above all, those who write it. More likely, though, a thousand-year-old tradition won’t expire with the flipping of a calendar or the aging of a baby-boom cohort. Confusion is often a prelude to consolidation; we may even be on the verge of a new golden age.
This is revealing: Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, institutions like The New Yorker are the guardians of these thousand-year traditions. (The phrase is uncomfortably reminiscent of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.)

But why not entertain the notion that this tradition, despite the truly heroic work of such composers as John Adams, may have run its course? That happens repeatedly throughout history. If art forms have clear beginnings, as opera and the novel and easel painting certainly do (however specialists may argue as to specifics), why may they not have endings?

There is a kind of sentimentalism in views of history that insist on immunity to reversals. One of the most significant aspects of the work of composers like Satie, Webern, Cage, and Feldman is their cheerful acceptance of the relative inconsequence of the ego-expressive component of music, their methodical and disciplined search for the “abstraction” that frees music — sounds and silences observed and appreciated for their own sake — from the tyranny of convention, that restores it to its original purpose, according to John Cage’s well-known description:
"The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." (Elsewhere, the second clause is replaced with “so that it is in accord with what happens.")
Understanding things as they are begins with accepting them on their own terms. I appreciate Alex Ross’s writing and his book: but we still need a history of the process of the Twentieth Century as it led, not to a continuation of history since the Renaissance, but to the succession to that history of a new moment in human awareness, a moment whose arrival the great Twentieth-Century composers did much to achieve.


Elaine Fine said...

Thank you (again).

John Whiting said...

I find it increasingly unsatisfying to read histories which project forward into the future as though it were going to trundle on in much the same fashion.