Epic of Ambivalence

Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise

“Its spirit,” writes Alex Ross of Berlin in the 1920s, when the Weimar Republic arts scene teemed with life and with possibility, “spoke in the meeting of opposites.” This observation could apply to the whole of the twentieth century, as chronicled by Ross in his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, hardcover, $30). Ross, who is well-known as the “classical” music critic of the New Yorker and the most prominent blogger (http://www.therestisnoise.com/) in the field, has crafted a narrative that embraces the contradictions that characterize so much about the century just past, both in life and in art.

Twentieth century existence was defined by conflicting interests and forces — the personal/political, public/private, freedom/conformity, and countless others. It was natural, inevitable even, that artists who worked in the period also were subject to these binary pressures, and that they were reflected in the art.

The Rest is Noise is a chronicle of how composers and their collaborators responded to these and other pressures, both internal and external. Arnold Schoenberg, one of the inventors of the twelve-tone organizational method, appears several times in the book, always struggling with conflicting impulses — tradition and innovation, tonality and pantonality, popularity and prestige. Ross quotes his famous statement that “there is still much music to be written in C major,” which was made two decades after he had codified his principles of the twelve-tone method, and lists the tonal works Schoenberg composed in the United States. Schoenberg never resolved the dualities about style that he himself was instrumental in creating.

This chronicle of ambivalence and ambiguity is organized roughly chronologically. Part I covers the years 1900-1933, with chapters on “classical” composition in the major nations of Europe and the United States. These chapters focus on how composers in their very different musical cultures created and/or adopted the technical innovations, aesthetic stances, and expressive concerns that were very much in the air at the time.

Part I includes a chapter-long profile of Jean Sibelius, who Ross uses as a stand-in for the composers from “the other Europe” and who also were largely outside the rush to innovate that characterized much of the century’s first third. In this chapter (and in a similarly focused profile of Benjamin Britten in Part III), Ross is able to go deeper into individual compositions and what may have motivated their authors. In the case of Sibelius, Ross gives a portrait of doubt and drink, of a composer silenced at the height of his powers by pressures complex and mundane. The narrative of Sibelius’ abortive attempts to finish an Eighth symphony is frustrating and sad.

I wrote “sad” there instead of “tragic” because that word, and words like “horrific,” “terrifying,” and “inhuman” should be reserved for the events depicted in Part II, which covers 1933-1945. This triptych of chapters, one each on music in Stalin’s Soviet Union, FDR’s America, and Hitler’s Germany, shows what can happen when politics becomes entwined with art. Ross doesn’t specifically make an argument against government funding of the arts, but these are, at the very least, cautionary tales. These chapters abound with villains, but there are no heroes.

The chapter on the Soviet Union details how Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev navigated, or failed to navigate, through the terror of Stalin’s totalitarian state, whose methods went from one terrifying extreme (the knock on the door) to the banal other (cancelled performances and required public responses to criticism). It is almost unbearably sad to read of the small but soul-killing capitulations they performed. It’s true that the experiences gave Shostakovich’s music several layers of richness and irony, but the cost to him and to music’s moral authority are incalculable.

The case of the American composer under the New Deal is more complicated, because FDR didn’t care as much about music as Stalin and Hitler did, nor did he think much in terms of its propaganda value. That would come later.

The stories in “Death Fugue,” the chapter about music in Nazi Germany, will break your heart and make you question (if only for a moment or two) the very value of art. Composers were used and destroyed by the Nazis and other composers (Richard Strauss, in particular) made their way through the twelve years of Nazi rule however they could. If anyone still has the idea that artists are superhuman figures moving in a realm above the rest of humanity, these three chapters will dispel that notion forever.

The rest of the century is covered in Part III, and if most of the coverage doesn’t have as much depth as the first two sections, it’s understandable for a couple of reasons. Not enough time has passed to make the dispassionate critical judgments that inform much of the rest of the book, so there’s more music that’s in the running to pass the test of time, since the winnowing out process is ongoing.

Early in the Cold War, the CIA wanted to promote American culture as part of its propaganda war with the Soviet bloc. To show how American artists were free from the stylistic straitjackets that characterized Soviet art, the Agency helped finance the postwar proliferation of new music festivals that featured music of the European and American avant-garde. (One of the ironies that hangs over the century is that the musical styles dictated by totalitarian governments and music rewarded by markets have quite a bit in common.) Just as composers under Stalin and Hitler had to carefully work their way around their governments, so did Americans have to work their way around Joe McCarthy. Some did so with honor and others couldn’t.

The last few chapters of The Rest is Noise chronicle and, in the end, celebrate the musical diversity of the last part of the century, though there isn’t space for Ross to delve too deeply into any particular trends. Minimalism and its offshoots get pride of place as the closest to a dominant style, and Ross makes a good case for that (relative) dominance.

That Ross deserves his reputation as one of the best prose stylists writing about music (of any kind) today is demonstrated throughout the book. Here he is on Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time:

Messiaen expects paradise not just in a single awesome hereafter but also in the scattered ecstasies of everyday life. (p. 449)

Ross can also use his prose to skewer:

Milton Babbitt, the emblematic Cold War composer, produced music so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it. (p. 401)

Extremes become their opposites in time. (p. 541)

Music that was once forbidding in its difficulty is now heard in film, echoed in popular music, and in clubs. Any material that a composer wants to use can be used; any combination of instruments and voices, including laptops, cell phones, mp3 players, and boom boxes, can be employed to make music. The Rest is Noise ends with a brief epilogue, a quick, optimistic survey of the current scene that indicates for Ross that regardless of the forces pushing and pulling at music from within and without, composers will go on, “in the freedom of their solitude,” making the music they are called to make.

What does it all mean? What is Alex Ross’ overarching idea about the music of the twentieth century? There are hints from the first page, with an anecdote about Alban Berg assuring George Gershwin that “music is music” (p. xi).

Throughout the first part of the book, Ross shines a favorable light on composers who use folk materials and ideas derived from jazz and popular styles in their music. He laments that composers seemed to have lost touch with everyday life, citing Debussy’s comment about “needlessly complex” pieces: “They smell of the lamp, not of the sun.” (p.45) At the same time, some of his best, most vivid accounts of musical events (he is a master at the famously difficult art of writing about musical sound itself) are devoted to pieces like Berg’s Wozzeck, an opera that nods towards the familiar, but is definitely in an advanced, highly-cultivated style. In fact, just two pages after his acerbic comment on Babbitt, he describes the second of the composer’s Three Compositions for Piano as “rigorously organized music” that:

... ends up feeling mysteriously prankish, antic, loosey-goosey; it shuffles and shimmies like jazz from another planet. (p. 403-4)

In all of this one senses that Ross is himself pulled in many directions by the dizzying array of musical experience embodied in the sonic art of the twentieth century. He wants to hear a reflection of the life of the people, but he also wants his interplanetary jazz. To quote Wallace Stevens, a favorite poet of Ross, he wants “ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”