Thursday, September 10, 2009

Richard Wolfe on Alex Ross

A few months ago the Sunday Star-Times asked me to review The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Distributed in New Zealand by HarperCollins, the book is a snip at $35.

Some time later another Auckland newspaper asked Richard Wolfe, my friend and occasional colleague (he writes books, I edit them when I get lucky), to review it too. For some reason his review, which is so much better than mine, was never published. So here it is for all Quote Unquote readers – hey, it’s just like the old days. Thanks, Richard.
If you have a curiosity for ‘an obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture’, this is the book for you. In 2001 Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, set about writing a history of 20th-century music. Quickly realising the immensity of the task, he decided to restrict himself to modern classical composition. The result is The Rest Is Noise (the title mirrors Hamlet’s ‘The rest is silence’), which tells the story of the 1900s heard through its music.

It opens in the Austrian city of Graz on 16 May 1906, when the curtain went up on Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. All the big names of European music were there, to experience something reportedly ‘more satanic and more artistic’ than anything yet seen on the German opera stage. It was brazenly modern and hugely popular, and Ross describes its climactic moments: ‘the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise’. That was the sound of a musical world on the verge of dramatic change.

Ross’s first draft for this book was too long by far, and the process of reduction has given his descriptions added potency and colour. In the first chapter we are introduced to Gustav Mahler, who displayed ‘a kaleidoscope of moods – childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing’, while the harmonic series in his 10th Symphony was spelled out by strings and harp like ‘a rainbow emerging over Niagara Falls’.

At the heart of the book are three chapters looking at developments in Russia, America and Germany from 1933 to 1945. Ross considers the role of the dictators as patrons of music, and how composers dealt with the challenges of totalitarianism. He gives a lengthy account of Hitler, who as a 17-year-old may have attended that performance of Salome in 1906. Classical music seems to have been one of the few things that brought out a certain tenderness in the Fuhrer, and Ross examines the concept of a ‘Nazi sound’. Russian composers produced some of the wildest sounds at this time, frequently ‘out-cacophonising’ Western counterparts, and the explosion of music after the end of World War II reflected a different world, one needing to deal with physical and intellectual violence.

As Europe was being introduced to Salome, the Mississippi Delta was incubating another new and influential sound. The blues lie largely outside Ross’s study here but he acknowledges its pervasive power. It was, for example, just beneath the surface of the first major American musical, Jerome Kern’s Show Boat of 1927. And while discussing the revolutionary rhythm of the ‘slightly insectoid’ Igor Stravinsky, Ross refers to bluesman Bo Diddley’s trademark syncopated beat.

Music is meant to be listened to rather than read about, and Ross has exploited the internet to provide a comprehensive audio guide to accompany this book. Some 300 clips, of samples ranging from Salome to John Adams’s 1987 opera Nixon in China, offer dozens of hours of instructive listening. Viewing is also possible, thanks to YouTube, and includes such gems as American John Cage’s startling ‘Water Walk’, as performed with bathtub and radios on a 1960 television show. The radical Cage felt music was lagging behind painting, in particular the all-white canvases of Robert Rauschenberg. He also absorbed ideas from trail-blazing Frenchman Pierre Boulez, while Ross dates the origins of this avant-garde movement to a concert performed before an international audience in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941.

Twentieth-century classical composition has had less effect on the outside world than its equivalents in other media, such as the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock. But its three distinguishing features of atonality, dissonance and minimalism have crossed over into other areas, cropping up in jazz, film scores, and pop and rock music. Thus John Cage paved the way for Karlheinz Stockhausen, who is likened to some great adventurer ‘proceeding through jungles of sound’. His use of electronic layering and tape loops influenced the Beatles on their Revolver album, while minimalism was explored by various artists including the Velvet Underground and David Bowie, and Bob Dylan on his 1965 proto-rap rant, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

Ross enlivens his story throughout by relating the music to contemporary art. He connects Debussy (a ‘sonic adventurer’) with Gauguin, Schoenberg (‘sharp-witted, widely cultured, easily unimpressed’) with Klimt and Kandinsky, and American Steve Reich with sculptor Donald Judd. This is an immensely readable and highly opinionated perspective, written with unflagging enthusiasm. It’s a chronological account, linking music with its times, and packed solid with details and personal insights. Among these is the claimed disproportionately large contribution to the subject by homosexual men.

If classical music appears to have gone into decline during the course of the 20th century, it now reaches larger audiences than ever before. Modern composers may never match the instant impact enjoyed by their popular counterparts, but Ross does not anticipate the genre disappearing in a hurry. On the contrary, he suggests this 1000-year-old tradition may even be on the verge of a new golden age.
Richard’s most recent book is the brilliant New Zealand Portraits (Viking, $80), which he talks about here to Christopher Moore of The Press.

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