Monday, 12 January 2009

The Rest is Noise: listening to the 20th century by Alex Ross

There are many, many reasons to praise this book. Geoff Dyer's quote on the cover calls it "a work of immense scope and ambition ... a great achievement"; inside the cover the praise is justified over and over again. Ross has linked together the stories of most of the significant composers of the last century, their lives, their work, and the interlinked nature of their work. He is particularly fascinating on Shostakovich and the ways in Soviet Russia, and Stalin, affected his work and life; on the pervasive influence of Schoenberg and twelve-tone music; and on both European and American musical responses to American modernity. There are fascinating nuggets of information: Dvorak was convinced that the first great American composer would be black; the only vaguely nasty thing anyone could be induced to say about Messiaen was that he and his wife had once eaten a whole tart without sharing it with their guest. Messiaen seems to be an exception to quite a roster of ego-driven, rather monstrous characters amongst the other composers described here, and Ross links this to Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, in which the composor Adrian Leverk├╝hn makes the ultimate bargain in return for aesthetic and worldly success. Both Ross and Mann suggest that the creation of great music is difficult to reconcile with great humanity; ironic in view of the humanising effect of music on audience and performer.

Ross is extremely good at describing musical works so that readers without great musical knowledge (including this reader) can understand the techniques used, and their relation to other works, but also at making you want to hear the music, even at the challenging or downright noisy end of the spectrum. I hope his list of recommended recordings is much used; I know I will be making many trips to the library to broaden my own experience of this work, which is shamefully limited.

Having read a lot about modernism and the avant-garde in literature and art in recent years, it was fascinating to see similar arguments, movements, schisms and declines described here. There is much here to compete, in avant-garde terms, with the excesses of Dada. But, with the possible exception of Weimar Berlin, until the late twentieth century music remained embedded in the Academy. Work, however challenging, continued to be performed by orchestras, in concert halls, as part of programmes and festivals. Unlike other modernisms, the modernisms of music cannot separate definitively from the cultural mainstream, until music begins to make use of tape and other recorded sound which can be performed in a greater variety of places. There is no obvious equivalent of Shakespeare and Co, publisher of Ulysses, to enable the performance of avant-garde work. Rather than necessarily compromising the impact of modernist composition, perhaps this enhances the significance of modernist composers' rebellion - against conservative traditions and then against modernist orthodoxy - and accounts for the longevity of innovations and their influence throughout the last century.

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