The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Reviewed by Joseph Kerman
The New Republic Online
"'I hate 'classical music,'" cries one of its most influential proponents, Alex Ross, in an autobiographical essay, "Listen to This," lodged appropriately in the New Yorker under "Onward and Upward With the Arts":
not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme- park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the works of thousands of composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype --
and he goes on to decry harshly and at some length the "cult of mediocre elitism" that has given classical music, as against popular, a spurious prestige. Yet Ross tells us that he grew up a "classical nerd" with a special passion for the "Eroica" Symphony -- we classical nerds are nothing if not passionate -- who insulated himself from popular music until a moment of conversion in college. He fell for punk music of the most cerebral kind, which led to Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, and on and on. The thrill could not last, though it could never be forgotten. And that is important. Most people, he claims,
are eventually deposited back at the point where they started, and they may begin to hate the music for lying to them. When I went back to the classical ghetto, I chose to accept its limitations. I realized that, despite the decrepitude of the culture, there was still a bright flame within....I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical.
Add to the new hatred for lying and to the nostalgia -- the ambivalence -- the fact that "Listen to This" includes a very densely potted history of twentiethcentury music, and you have a sketch for The Rest Is Noise, Ross's new book, named after the blog that he started around the same time as the article, in 2004, with, I would guess, the book already in mind.
The college is question was Harvard, which, by means of a combination of self-selection and cultivation by stellar professors and deans, regularly brings forth the nation's leaders in all walks of life. The upperclassmen walk with a special little spring, as though to mime a self-assurance that has been mounting since their first days in the yard. It is worth noting that Ross has flaunted tradition by producing as his first book an ambitious history of twentieth-century music, rather than the usual easy collection of already published critical essays, as Bernard Shaw, Andrew Porter, Virgil Thomson (nearly), and others have done. He certainly draws heavily on his New Yorker backlog, but he hasn't minded a lot more work and thought.
The problems with this history begin with the title page -- with the selfassured title itself, which seems more promotional than informative, and with the subtitle Listening to the Twentieth Century, which grows more shifty the more you think about it. It might mean listening to the characteristic sounds of the twentieth century -- the roar of the jet, the song of the cell phone, the ear- and brain-splitting din of carpet bombing -- rather than listening to music. Twentieth century music, as Ross has stressed with much vigor, even spleen, is mostly popular, and increasingly international. But a writer whose ambition was "to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical" talks mostly about Western classical music as if it were classical.
Luckily, he writes very well about classical music. Ross, who started his career as a music critic in these pages, has been the classical musical critic of the New Yorker since 1996. This is as the twinkling of an eye as compared to that magazine's previous long-term critics, Winthrop Sargeant from 1949 to 1972 and Andrew Porter from the early 1970s to 1992. Turning forty, Ross is a product of the Tina Brown New Yorker -- smart, personal, caustic, irreverent, fabulously informed, and sometimes in your face. He is a natural writer, and although in the reviews section at the back he is allotted much less space than his predecessors were, he sometimes gets long, substantial pieces into the main body of the magazine (such as "Listen to This"). His prose is flashy but invigorating, slipping easily between the conversational and the eloquent. He can be both passionate about music and really funny. The search for the apt epithet seldom fails him: Schoenberg "easily unimpressed," "loosey-goosey" for Milton Babbitt's early music, and for Adorno, polemicizing at ease from the terrace of the "Grand Hotel Abyss" (even if that is quoted from Lukacs).
Ross reads recent musical writings avidly, both arcane and casual, and peppers his prose with apposite quotations. They provide an air of authority as well as generosity to his sources, but they do get tiresome in extended writings, such as this book. Ross is always on the watch for hypocrisy, but his deflationary notes and anecdotes can come to feel routine, even mean. That he never shies away from technical language gives him cred (as he might say) with his musician readers and bothers not at all the non-musicians, who seem happy to skim over the C-sharps and the minor triads rooted a tritone apart, knowing these will always lead to something interesting and even breathtaking.
For Ross is one of very few music critics who somehow create the illusion that you grasp the music they write about even if you have not heard it. This a rare gift. Many esteemed critics do not even aim for it. And that is why his blog has found its way onto many a music lover's slate of Favorites. "Ross enables us to listen more hearingly," writes a reviewer who prides himself on his amateur, not-music-savvy status. (Or "hear more listeningly"?) It helps that Ross typically writes about music that inspires his enthusiasm, and therefore can inspire the same in his readers, many of whom associate him especially with contemporary -- including the very newest -- music. But he makes new points about older music, too. Unlike many critics, he does not enjoy trashing art, and in a rather moving New Yorker piece in which Ross in effect dumps Philip Glass, he gives him the gentlest parachute imaginable. It also helps that his reviews are quite short (as opposed to Andrew Porter, who did his best work on a more expansive level).
Unfortunately, the transition from reviewer to historian is never easy. Even the most selfassured writer of art history -- the history of any of the arts -- has to confront another ambivalence, this one not personal but inherent to the enterprise. Music history has been a laggard, insular subject that came very late to New Criticism, Marxism (by way of Adorno), feminism, postmodern theory, and the like. The traditional paradigm was Whiggish or Hegelian -- music's internal technical "progress" from plainchant to polyphony, Beethoven to Schoenberg and (one could think, for a time) beyond. For many reasons, some of them obvious enough, this paradigm stopped working, and music, like painting and poetry, is now increasingly viewed, studied, and experienced as a product of ideology, social conditions, and politics. But to believe this in a strong sense is immediately to call into question the primacy of the aesthetic meanings of music versus the social ones. Given his own history as a listener, it is no surprise that Ross sometimes comes down strongly on the social and political side of this impasse and at other times tacitly on the aesthetic.
The best parts of Ross's book are a series of loosely connected episodes -- set pieces, really, some of which made their debuts in the New Yorker. There are whole chapters on Sibelius and Britten and long sections on Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Copland, and Messiaen. We could count in this category the book's prelude on the premiere of Salome in Graz in 1906, with which Ross begins his twentieth century. This is a little tour de force. The composer-conductor, dining at leisure before the performance, reassures his anxious companion -- who happens to be Mahler -- that they cannot start without him, Richard Strauss: "Let 'em wait." Crowned heads and everyone from Vienna is here, for the famously conservative Court Opera in Vienna had refused to mount Salome because of the immorality of its text and of its music. Schoenberg, six of his students, the widow of Johann Strauss II the Waltz King, the fictional but inevitable Adrian Leverkuhn, probably Hitler, unquestionably Puccini -- each is sketched as deftly as though by a Viennese Max Beerbohm. Strauss exerts an unholy fascination on Ross, and keeps turning up in the book to sardonic effect. He was the obnoxious genius who twisted his way cynically through the shoals of the century without noticeable principles, let alone good taste, though he wrote some of its most beautiful music.
It is the connective tissue between the set pieces that betrays a hasty and uncertain sense of narrative, with questionable emphases. Perhaps this was inevitable. Puccini, for one, receives lamentably little attention beyond a hasty page on his not-all-that-important trip to America in 1907 ("his ship was trapped for a day in a fog bank off Sandy Hook"), when he conceived of The Girl of the Golden West as an appeal to his hosts. It features a fearless, independent heroine, "a bringer of peace, a beacon in a darkening world," but as the twentieth century has listened, women quite different from Minnie have kept Puccini on the stage (even on Broadway) and in big tents, stadiums, and multiplex simulcasts.
Many will see the second section of Ross's book as the most impressive of his grand set pieces. "Part II: 1933-1945" covers this twelve-year period in three chapters: "The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia"; "Music for All: Music in FDR's America"; and "Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany." France and Italy are not covered. In "The Art of Fear," some pretty familiar material on Shostakovich and Prokofiev is presented arrestingly, with a good deal of nuance, new at least to me. Ross keeps a studiously open mind on Shostakovich's putative intentions. "Music for All" is less arresting or focused, though Aaron Copland is its main victim; his stubborn adherence to Popular Front ideas is exposed at length. Fascistic voices are also heard.
"Death Fugue" is the most chilling and luminously written of these chapters. The tortuous vacillations and accommodations of Werner Egk, Carl Orff, Webern, Hindemith, and even the Schoenberg circle are spelled out. (Webern became a Nazi devotee.) But what stands out is the picture of Hitler's obsession with -- and love for -- music. It is fairly well known that the director of the Wagner shrine at Bayreuth welcomed him into the family: he was "Uncle Wolf" to her boys, putty in the hands of her resident ideologue Houston Stewart Chamberlain. But it was the respite of music, as much as ideology, that brought Hitler back to his Bayreuth villa. A serious music lover who liked to play records to his friends followed by little musicappreciation lectures, he admired Bruckner but not Pfitzner, barely tolerated Orff, and kept Parsifal and Gotterdammerung on the stage against the entreaties of his advisers. His youthful epiphany was a performance of Tristan in Vienna conducted by -- Mahler. Over the years Hitler and Strauss played a crazy game of cat and mouse, as the latter eased into his last golden years as a composer.
Hardly by accident, there is just one of Ross's musical descriptions in this chapter, near the end, on Metamorphosen, the last big orchestral work by the eighty-one-year-old Strauss.
Contrapuntal lines intertwine like kudzu on a ruined mansion. As the movement unfolds, the music tries to settle into a more relaxed, lyrical voice, but at regular intervals a kind of drainage occurs and a Tristan mood of wounded desperation resumes. At a dramatic moment toward the end, most of the instruments drop out, leaving a sibilant G ....It gravitates implacably to the deathly C minor that has been sounding throughout.
Metamorphosen then cites a work highly resonant for Ross, the "Eroica" Symphony, causing anguished dissonances as Strauss's own funeral anthem falls out of sync with Beethoven's. Having seemingly reached bottom, it goes two more long steps down -- a low G, then an even lower C. It is like the sunrise fanfare in Thus Spake Zarathustra moving in retrograde, the harmonic series rewinding to the fundamental. There is no "light in the night," only night.
I'm hearing the critic I wait for week by week, not the self-assured historian.
And "Part III: 1945-2000"? It starts strongly, with an account of the stimulation of German music by the American Occupying Forces, which also propped up the NaziWagnerian old guard at Bayreuth -- a brief "American interregnum in Germany musical history," as Ross nicely puts it. Strauss has finally died. But then the typical rush sets in, sometimes brilliant, sometimes merely dazzling. Skipping ahead to the final chapter, on music at the century's end, Ross ruminates on the future of classical music, pronounces the new bewilderingly diverse, and runs through the latest names under miscellaneous headings such as "After the End," "After Minimalism," and "After Europe." He returns home to John Adams, for whom he has always been a strong advocate. Yet in the elegiac tribute to Adams that ends the book, Ross cites not the relatively recent Doctor Atomic or On the Transmigration of Souls or even El Nino of 2000, his cut-off year, but Nixon in China, written as far back as 1987.
It remains to say that there is, in Ross's book, a strong strain of sympathy for and solidarity with the well-known oppressed groups in our society -- blacks, gays, and (less) Jews and women. A long section on the exclusion of African Americans from classical music alternates between real fury at their exclusion and a certain schadenfreude at their establishment of music(s) of their own that bids fair to supplant it. Ross takes the opportunity of his somewhat peculiar Britten chapter -- among other things, I think he overemphasizes homosexual elements in the composer's life and art -- to issue a thorough list of gay composers of the twentieth century; in this connection, his set piece on the Strauss-Wilde Salome may or may not have been serendipitous. Ross suggests that some of the aversion to classical music since the 1920s, at least, stems from the feeling that it is not essentially masculine. Exactly as Charles Ives believed.
Joseph Kerman is professor emeritus of music at Berkeley. His new book, Opera and the Morbidity of Music, will be published in the spring.