Different Destinies

An Interview with Alex Ross

Alex Ross spent the better part of ten years researching and writing The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, hardback, $30). During that time he became one of America’s best-known and most widely read critics of what is called “classical” music, with special emphasis on the music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Rest is Noise is a sweeping, largely-chronological narrative of the social, political, economic and artistic forces that came into play in the world of the arts during a tumultuous century. It is also a deeply felt, personal story of how art is made and how it is received. (See my review here). I asked Mr. Ross a few questions that loomed large for me after I read the book.

What were the most striking (delightful or disturbing) discoveries you made while working on The Rest is Noise?

I loved the research stage of the book — it’s always more fun than writing. I looked at the scrapbooks where the young George Gershwin pasted up articles about his favorite musicians; files on Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner in the archives of the American occupation of Germany; Sibelius’s elegantly inscribed letters to Koussevtizky talking about the unfinished Eighth Symphony that he later burned in his fireplace. The most delightful discovery was perhaps realizing that Shostakovich had quoted from Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in his Fourteenth Symphony. It was a hidden clue to the deep friendship between these two very strange, isolated men. The most disturbing discovery was that Hitler had attended a performance of Tristan und Isolde under Mahler’s direction in 1906. It wasn’t mentioned in the Hitler biographies. Somehow, it really gave me chills.

Right after I finished reading the central triptych concerning music under Stalin, FDR, and Hitler, a friend played a passage from Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Romane (to illustrate a point about cymbal technique). I could barely stand to listen to it — after what I had just finished reading, it sounded like fascism. I’ve gotten past that since then, and I was wondering if you had any similar experiences while you were working on this project.

I have a difficult time listening to one recording in my collection — a performance of Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag in Vienna that Hitler actually attended. It’s one of Strauss’s least inspired works; you can sense him trying to find his place in Nazi culture. It’s also hard to deal with the music that Shostakovich wrote for the scene “Stalin’s Garden” in The Fall of Berlin. But in general I don’t believe that music is “stained” by the events that surrounded its creation. It can always be reshaped in listeners’ minds — bent toward good or ill or back toward good again.

Another thing that struck me after reading that middle section and for the rest of the book is what seems to be an incredible irony that continues to haunt us today. The Soviets, especially, demanded that their composers produce music that was close to the people, music that was accessible. This was also the case in other totalitarian countries, in the East and the West. The irony comes with the fact that music that is produced in response to the desires of the audience, or more ominously, in response to the market, similar in style and stance to that required by totalitarian governments. Do you agree with this? If so, what, if anything, do you think it means?

This is more or less true, and it’s a haunting fact, but I don’t read too much into it. Totalitarian dictatorships are those that submit to the will of one ruler, and if the ruler’s taste is that of an ordinary music-lover, then naturally the music he demands from talented composers will appeal to ordinary music-lovers everywhere. However, I think it’s a mistake to believe, as many advocates of modernist music have suggested over the years, that there is something deeply amiss with the kind of mural-like populist composition pursued by Copland, Shostakovich and others during the 30s and 40s simply because totalitarian regimes appropriated that aesthetic. Again it’s that logic of the “taint” or “stain” that I reject.

I was thinking of the irony involved in those two seemingly polar opposite forces pushing in the same general stylistic direction, rather than the resulting music being “tainted” in any way from the association.

I see what you mean about opposing forces pulling in the same direction. It ultimately signifies that music in a given style can always obey multiple masters. Some wrote twelve-tone music to achieve control; others saw it as a medium of freedom. In Vienna the method may have served highly charged, expressionistic, Central European ends; in Berkeley in the 1950s it tilted toward extreme abstraction and meditative stillness (I’m thinking in particular of La Monte Young’s String Trio). The same goes for so-called “populist” styles. The same brassy sonorities could be linked to American, Soviet, or Nazi political contexts. This kind of irony hovers over all twentieth-century music. Time and again, sounds found destinies different from the ones their original creators had in mind.

The Rest is Noise begins with a narrative of the Graz premiere of Salome in 1906. You show how many of the important musical, artistic, and political figures (even a fictional character is there) attended this signal event. Looking ahead and speculating, what event in the first years of this century might someone writing about 21st century music use as a starting point for their narrative?

Interesting question! I somehow doubt that future historians will focus much attention on the high-level premieres that have taken place in the first years of the century, although at some recent performances of Osvaldo Golijov’s folk-based pieces there’s been a whiff of revolution in the air. Instead, they may see the seeds of major developments in performances in out-of-the-way places — some new-music ensemble presenting a gritty new sound in a basement space, a composer creating an electronic piece in isolation and dropping it somewhere on the Internet. Or perhaps some huge explosion is about to happen. Many have been stunned in the last year or two by Gustavo Dudamel’s performances with his Venezuelan youth orchestra. What if a young Venezuelan or Argentinian were to unleash the same kind of unjaded musical passion? Our Rite of Spring might well come from South America or East Asia.

What’s next for you in terms of big projects?

I don’t have any big projects in mind; I plan to go back to my magazine work full time. But of course I’d like to write another book someday. I might delve into popular music, or I might meander backward into the nineteenth century ...