Alex Ross
The Rest is Noise
(Farrer, Girroux, Strauss)

Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker magazine and the author of this book, was, I noticed, in Sydney at the Writers’ Festival. Wish I’d been there, cause I’d like to hear him speak.  (Anyone catch it?)

I’ve just started this book but I thought I’d say something about it anyway. And just by the by, I’m not actually reading it, but listening to it as an audio book that I downloaded from the eMusic site.

Anyway, the book is a history of (mainly) classical music in the twentieth century and it traces the development of that form from the end of the nineteenth century through to the present day. As such it deals with the way so-called serious music changed from a reliance on the conventional and well-established tonal scales that we associate with the likes of Beethoven and Mozart to experimentation with 12-note forms and the various atonal investigations of a Messian or Scriabben.

If that sort of thing means nothing to you, don’t worry. The book does a pretty good job of explaining the theory and the history so that even a dilettante like me could follow it pretty well.

Ross also tries to trace the political and social influences that were brought to bear on the composers and audiences for this music and there are some fascinating discussions of, for instance, the influence of anti-Semitism and the rise of folk themes in the music of a new wave of classical composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók and Janacek.

Although I’d hardly count myself an expert on these guys, I’ve always had an interest in this particular folk aspect of twentieth century classical music and found the discussion here pretty riveting. If Vienna (or maybe Paris) was the Nashville of classical music in the early part of the twentieth century, then these guys were the renegade alt.classical crew who looked for a way forward by trying to discover what was lasting and original in the music of their cultural, peasant roots.

Other themes touched upon (remember, I’m only about a 100 pages in) include the development of technology and how it, particularly the phonograph, changed the audiences’ and the composers’ relationship to music, as well as the rise of America as a cultural force, two things not coincidentally, related. As contemporary music goes through similar technological rebirthing pangs with the advent of the iPod and MySpace generation, you couldn’t help but feel the shock of familiarity in some of the discussions in the book, proof positive of Ross’s assertion that music doesn’t exist in hermetically sealed compartments but operates on a continuum.

I mentioned the anti-Semitism theme and this passage struck me. It suggests the way that prejudice can be found wherever someone so inclined decides to find it (Harmonielehre is a book by composer Arnold Schoenberg):

Harmonielehre turns out to be an autopsy of a system that has ceased to function. In the time of the Viennese masters, Schoenberg says, tonality had had a logical and ethical basis. But by the beginning of the twentieth century it had become diffuse, unsystematic, incoherent – in a word, diseased. To dramatize this supposed decline, the composer augments his discourse with the vocabulary of social Darwinism and racial theory. It was then fashionable to believe that certain societies and races had corrupted themselves by mixing with others. Wagner, in his later writings, made the argument explicitly racial and sexual, saying that the Aryan race was destroying itself by crossbreeding with Jews and other foreign bodies. Weininger made the same claim in Sex and Character.

Schoenberg applied the concept of degeneration to music. He introduced a theme that would reappear often as the century went on – the idea that some musical languages were healthy while others were degenerate, that true composers required a pure place in a polluted world, that only by assuming a militant asceticism could they withstand the almost sexual allure of dubious chords.

In the nineteenth century, Schoenberg says, tonality had fallen prey to “inbreeding and incest”. Transitional or “vagrant” chords such as the diminished seventh – a harmonically ambiguous four-note entity that can resolve in several different directions – were the sick offspring of incestuous relationships. They were “sentimental”, “philistine”, “cosmopolitan”, “effeminate”, “hermaphroditic”; they had grown up to be “spies”, “turncoats”, “agitators”. Catastrophe was inevitable. “The end of the system is brought about with such inescapable cruelty by its own functions … The juices that serve life, serve also death.” And: “Every living thing has within it that which changes, develops, and destroys it. Life and death are both equally present in the embryo.”

Weininger wrote in similar terms in Sex and Character: “All that is born of woman must die. Reproduction, birth, and death are inextricably linked. The act of coitus, considered not only psychologically but also ethically and biologically, is akin to murder.” Moreover, Schoenberg’s description of those rootless chords – “homeless phenomena, unbelievably adaptable, they flourish in every climate” – actually resembles Weininger’s description of the effeminate, cosmopolitan Jew, who “adapts himself … to every circumstance and every race; like the parasite, he becomes another in every host, and takes on such an entirely different appearance that one believes him to be a new creature, although he always remains the same. He assimilates himself to everything.”

Is there no end to the ways in which otherwise smart people can convince themselves of absolute bullshit if it suits their needs?

For me, the strength of Ross’ book, ultimately lies in his ability to explain (probably the wrong word) the relationship between notes or musical passages and the overall intention of the piece or the story the piece is telling. The choice of key, a given scale, a transition from one note to an unexpected other; such devices are analysed throughout. Those sections of the book—and they can be quite lengthy—are really fascinating and deftly handled.

It looks an imposing book but Ross’s touch is light. On a scale of accessibility that has Wagner’s Ring Cycle at ten and Aga Doo (Push Pineapple) at number one, I’d score this about a West Side Story six.

In short: good book. Read it. Or listen to it.

Related links:
Alex Ross
New Yorker Magazine
Aga Doo

PS: Though I’m nowhere near finished, I want to add something. I said Ross’s great strength was his ability to explain the way the music tells its story, and I think that’s true. But it is also the book’s greatest weakness. Yes, the paradox. I’ve just heard the section that talks about George Gershwin, one of my favourites, and there is something bloodless about the discussion. Maybe this is the inevitable consequence of talking about something in a learned, semi- academic manner, but it is worth bearing in mind. While in one way the exposition is useful, it can also kill dead any sense of the music as a living breathing thing in its own right. So maybe there’s a bit too much head and not enough heart in the book?  We’ll see.

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