The Rest is Noise

I have gotten myself completely lost in orchestral music over the last few weeks.

I read a lot, and usually have several books going at the same time. That sounds a little pompous, but it didn’t happen on purpose. After the move to Berlin I just couldn’t find any television shows I liked, and without TiVo I ended up using the big screen for the PlayStation and an occasional DVD. Karen is still frothing at the mouth about something called SlingBox, but I can’t say I miss TV that much.

That leaves a lot of time for reading, but I have found that I need to mix it up and can’t just read one book at a time. I still need to change the channel occasionally. There’s usually some fiction, some kind of book about politics/economics/history, and then I like to read something about the arts. I try to keep some creativity in my life, but it can’t just be photobooks all the time.

I just read a book by Alex Ross called The Rest is Noise. Cut-and-paste Blurb:

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New  York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

I love music, but a person call only learn to love something that he interacts with. Ross covers all the music I’ve always heard of, but never listened to. He tells the story of Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School, the way Stravinsky shocked Paris, Sibelius losing it in the forests of Finland… you name ’em, they’re in there. Dvorak, Debussy, Berg, Webern, Shostakovich, Ashkenazy, all the way to Britten, Copland, Adams, and the music being written right now somewhere nearby… where most of us will never hear it or know about it.

What makes the book really fun is that Ross is modern enough to provide us with the music to appreciate what he’s writing about. Some things are easy to write about – murder-mysteries and the Penthouse Forums seem to need little multimedia help – but other topics cannot be covered in words. Food writing is attempted by few and mastered by none, and describing a musical piece – especially an atonal orchestral piece – is virtually impossible. Thankfully, Ross has provided us with excerpts to every relevant piece on his site, and an abridged playlist is available via iTunes. I ended up buying a lot of the music (via Amazon’s brilliant collection of DRM-free download section) but you should check out Ross’s exhaustive set of samples.

Alex Ross: Chapter Guide, with musical samples

A simple iTunes Playlist

Simply put, The Rest is Noise is a rare opportunity to be taken on a tour of unknown territory by a gregarious and eloquent guide. It’s a chance to delve deeply into a topic that is virtually inaccessible.

He doesn’t really answer the final question: “Why bother?” To some degree, orchestral music, like Richard Strauss, seems to have outlived itself. Almost any mood, no matter how complex, can be musically sketched with a different set of tools nowadays. Dissonance, atonality, and the interweaving and repurposing of ethnic and multicultural sounds is so common as to have become part of the global musical vernacular. We hear jazz, hip-hop, bangrha and sampled sounds everywhere we turn. But I think of composers like Sean Shepherd or Dan Visconti, both fellows at the American Academy, and they remind me of photographers working with Large Format view cameras. Yes, it’s arcane, and you can fake almost anything with one of the new pro-level DSLRs… but it’s never quite the same. There is distinct pride in having mastered a complex, antique piece of equipment. The process is much more deliberate, and the final image can be breathtaking in a way that could only be born of its tools. Or to complete the circle, Ansel Adams, the father of landscape photography, taught us that the image is the score and the print is the performance. But if you write small, you’ll sound small.

Read the opening pages of The Rest Is Noise.

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