Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Rest Is Noise (Alex Ross)

 --The blurb--
"The Rest Is Noise is a sweeping musical history from pre-war Vienna to the Velvet Underground. In this comprehensive tour, Alex Ross, music critic for the 'New Yorker', explores the people and places that shaped musical development: Adams to Zweig, Brahms to Bjork, pre-First World War Vienna to 'Nixon in China'. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award, this portrait of an exceptional era weaves together art, politics and cultural history to show how twentieth-century classical music was both a symptom and a source of immense social change."

--The review--
When it comes to works of art, the critical world is frequently split between the separate values of intrinsic and extrinsic reading. Just how vital are the contexts of an artist's personal life and the historical and political scenes in which they grew up to interpretation of their work? Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise is a firm supporter of extrinsic interpretation, but combines both beautifully to add pace, engagement and a multitude of colours to an already interesting cultural mosaic.

Ross treads the fine line between academics and accessibility largely with skill, although some readers may feel lost by the more detailed discussions relating to key signatures and so on. On the other hand, people whose interest is such that they're reading such an in-depth book on the subject will likely already have a good grasp of the meanings of technical terms (even if 'knowing meanings' and 'listening, identifying and analysing' are two very different skills). The interdisciplinary nature of Ross' work is also appealing, with topics as diverse as Stalin, Disney, and John Donne being discussed. The author handles the jumps between topics and countries well, with the possible exception of dwelling too much on Britten (a whole chapter on one composer seems excessive, especially when a good proportion of it was devoted to a long-winded synopsis of Peter Grimes). However, the tome is mostly inspiring and urges us to listen: even though the chapters appear long, these are happily split into smaller chunks.

As the length of the book suggests, Ross covers an impressive range of music. One could argue that the depth of examples given is so great that The Rest Is Noise would be better as an audiobook: a soundtrack list is provided at the end of the book, but to listen and read simultaneously is not always practical, whereas an audiobook could interject with excerpts or even full works appropriately. Despite the limitations of the book's format, though, Ross does an excellent job of proving the present-day relevance of various twentieth-century works, including several by Kurt Weill (think Pirate Jenny and Mack The Knife), and the significance of a number of little-known artists from this century (such as Marian Anderson). Through this historical approach, Ross shows us the value of interpreting music extrinsically, even if at times he delivers his opinions in a manner that dresses them up as fact (which can add expertise and authority, but also takes a text into risky territory).

Contemporary observations from other musical spheres also increase the relevance of classical music to fans of other forms of music, or to those who know little about the classical genre. Comparing Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man to Queen's We Will Rock You in terms of rhythm and melody is an astute remark, and on further inspection, readers will find such comparisons wherever they look in the world of music: Puccini's Humming Chorus compares closely melodically to Les Misérables' Bring Him Home, for example.

In light of such insightful assertions, then, the occasional sloppiness in terms of formatting is disappointing. Part Three of the book, which encompasses the years 1945-2000, also seems to cover far too great a passage of time compared to the previous parts, which made more sense in their division (effectively World War Two and the years preceding this conflict). The book's glossary also only seems to be available online, which is a shame: an extensive glossary and cycle of fifths in the paper edition would be most helpful. Syntax is clumsy at times, too, and Ross occasionally generalises or makes ill-considered statements (for example, dubbing the BBC the finest purveyor of classical radio programming in the world, without considering other stations such as Italy's Rai Radio Tre, which plays complete works without adverts). However, none of this detracts too significantly from Ross' apparent belief that music cannot achieve complete autonomy from the society around it, and the convincingness with which he backs this up - naturally composers are not only influenced by and are part of their culture, but also influence what comes after them.

This arena of influence is largely described by Ross as being heavily centred around Europe and America, and it seems difficult to believe that there was really nothing musically significant going on in Australia, Asia and so on during the twentieth century. The closest the author comes to this is mentioning traditional music fro the Andes, Bali, India and Japan in relation to Messaien in Chapter 13. Film music also gets a look-in here, although it (and musicals) arguably deserve more airtime. The link between contemporary and classical is cleverly reinforced in Chapter 14, with Ross highlighting the Beatles' admiration for Stockhausen, Stravinsky's influence on Charlie Parker, and Coltrane's love of Bartok. Naturally, though, we all have different notions of importance and it would have been impossible for Ross to include every even remotely influential figure in The Rest Is Noise: although it doesn't stop the reader from feeling that a few have been unjustly left out, such as Ludovico Einaudi and Joe Hisaishi, who have both been hugely popular since the 1980s. Equally, the impact of the Cultural Revolution on China's ability to have real influence could have been given more attention.

So what is the 'noise' and the 'rest' of Ross' title? Several possibilities can be inferred. What some listeners may consider 'noise' is often used to show off composers' and performers' virtuosity as part of quite lyrical works, rather than acting ostensibly and primarily as a source of pleasure. Composers, as 'invisible' men, often had to become visible (i.e., they had to make some noise), as their future depended on it. Even conversation (also 'noise') has lyrical and musical qualities thanks to phonetics, and conversation can take the form of opposition, which too could seem like 'noise', with the controversy of some classical music at the time of its release perhaps being perceived as 'noise' compared to 'approved' music. Classical music can also be deliberately and literally noise, with Ross pointing out not just the most famous example of John Cage's 4'33", but also the lesser-known examples of Imaginary Landscape #4 (also by Cage) and Cinq Etudes de Bruits (by Pierre Schaeffer). Conversely, classical music could be thought of as something pure and to be revered, with 'the rest' being 'noise' (although the positive links Ross makes between classical, folk, film and rock music make this a more tenuous hypothesis). Finally, all that is going on around composers historically and politically is noise, and as Ross is keen to point out, such noise is influential.

Ross also considers the influence of all this 'noise' in the twenty-first century, depicting a mixed future for the art, although perhaps without fully considering the impact of crossover music (through groups such as All Angels) and publications (such as the Classic FM magazine). Nevertheless, the breadth of his work means that virtually everyone will find something they're familiar with, whether it's the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Missy Elliott, Public Enemy, Philip Glass, or Michael Nyman. This all-encompassing influence of classical music is nicely summed up by Ross, who simultaneously recognises the role of composition today by way of conclusion, neatly demonstrating its continued relevance in our "decentered culture". And with the formation of history and culture as active and vital today as they ever were, it's crucial that composers continue to tell that story for future generations. With luck, Ross will continue to do the same through his writings.

other works by Alex Ross
Listen To This (2011)

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