The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. By Alex Ross. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 621 pages, with index and endnotes. $30.
“The first time that [Pierre Boulez] came here, do you know where he was living?” Edgard Varèse asked, incredulously, in 1959. “With [John] Cage. He came to see us. It was a very funny thing because I was not expecting—he doesn’t look like and he doesn’t behave like a homosexual. He’s always very reserved—but Cage, right away, you see it!” The passage comes from Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, by Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, and illustrates the enormous pressures gay composers were under in the 20th century, and that is only one of the overlooked themes of the 20th century highlighted by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise. Ross, a music critic at the New Yorker, isn’t interested in score-settling, he’s far too genial a critic for that, but composers traditionally thought of as musically backward are shown to be progressive in other ways, and the amount of words he dedicates to Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sibelius show where his sympathies lie. The cast of Cold War characters he brings up, and the ingenius method of using Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain as idée fixe running almost the entire length of the book to illuminate, as well as shade, the personalities of those who wrote music in the wake of Arnold Schoenberg, will only help to ground Ross’s conclusions in the minds of readers who aren’t classical music aficionados.
The Rest Is Noise is largely a series of stories. When Ross does dip into analysis, it’s to advance an artistic point, or a historical one, to explain a work’s inner workings, not simply to educate. Thus, the sinuous opening notes of Richard Strauss’s Salome are deconstructed, and shown where they are quoted in other works through the century. The motifs of Britten’s Peter Grimes (opera is entirely as important as instrumental music in this history) are taken apart and pointed out in order to show the level of Britten’s skill and mastery of what might be called musical psychology. The psychology of composers who left their home countries, either in exile, such as Schoenberg and Bartók, or by choice, such as Stravinsky, are also delved into as Ross describes the stylistic changes that a new society can open up to an artist. He also explores the costs of staying in one place in the case of Richard Strauss, who literally did not leave town as the Third Reich rose to and eventually achieved power.
The story begins in Vienna and ends in America, with the premiere of Salome and then of John Adams’s Nixon in China. What happened following Salome has traditionally been portrayed as a march to atonality, with Schoenberg in the lead, a standard later taken by Boulez and then on to total serialism. Composers who followed other paths were denigrated as backwards and unprogressive, not heeding the spirit the era ostensibly demanded, and were ignored by those in the self-selected vanguard.
I don’t know anyone actively involved in the world of classical music who takes that view seriously any more, and yet it still holds sway over a significant number of listeners. (Boulez does, and I’ve talked with him often, but his is not exactly a representative opinion.) A man sitting next to me at a chamber-music concert this afternoon said he had a few composer friends, and that one of them was getting a lot of performances, “but he writes in a very conservative style.” “There’s good music in every style,” I told him, and he agreed. Even though he likes his friend’s music, he wanted to make it clear that it wouldn’t necessarily sound radical. That this egalitarian opinion has any credence is due in great part to the work of Ross at the New Yorker, and Kyle Gann’s work on the postminimalists, critics who denied the validity of the teleological position and who wrote, and continue to write, about the inner workings and emotional power of the music they admire and not in terms of stylistic ideology.
The finest chapter in The Rest Is Noise comes late in the
book, titled “Grimes! Grimes! The Passion of
Benjamin Britten,” specifically
the pages about the friendship between Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. That
they were friends, who met in
Ross is dogged in his way of making connections across composers and genre, and spots a major one in the end of Shostakovich’s haunted Eighth String Quartet and Peter Grimes. The end of the quartet centers on Shostakovich’s motto, the pitches D, E flat, C, and B, centers obsessively, in fact. “The final pages of the score resemble, in a curious way, the mad scene of Peter Grimes, in which the fisherman is reduced to singing his own name: “Grimes! Grimes! Grimes!” Ross writes. “It is the ultimate moment of self-alienation,” as both Grimes and Shostakovich find the burden of their own company almost unbearable.
second main triumph is to bring to the light of day several unforgettable
actors in the Cold War, following the end of World War II. The biggest of these
is Nicholas Nabokov, a Russian composer and an “ebullient, charming, and
slippery personality,” in Ross’s words. Nabokov would go on to appear in many
places at many times when music and politics could make a joint statement,
usually that of the artistic possibilities available to composers who lived in
1952, now general secretary of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Nabokov
organized the Masterpieces of the XXth Century in
it? Now we see the rabbit hole we travel down when discussing the CIA’s
involvement in Cold
War cultural politics. I originally thought that David Caute, in his multifaceted
study The Dancer Defects: The Struggle
for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War, disputed Ross’s source for the
Farfield/CIA connection. “The narrative of Hidden
Hands claims that the CIA ‘had a handle on several [
The truth of who funded what is probably somewhere in the middle, with the CIA doing its part to advance Western ideals in Europe, since the State Department was unable to do so, but that extreme manipulation by the agency was the exception, rather than the norm. “The CIA did things in secret, like the Count of Monte Cristo, but it could not afford to do much,” Caute concludes. In this case, the Farfield Foundation, a "CIA conduit," in Caute's words, was doing some of the not much the CIA could afford to do.
Ross is at his best when discussing specific musical works, his verbal analyses serving as beautifully structured sentences and phrases serving as a way of hearing the music, only in written form. One example will suffice, as he writes of Strauss’s Metamorphosen:
"Metamorphosen, scored for twenty-three strings, begins with consecutive chords of E minor, A-flat major, B-flat major, and A major, anchored on a descending chromatic line. Dusky and doleful, the harmonies run through eleven of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in just two bars, as if to acknowledge that Schoenberg might not have been so crazy after all. Contrapuntal lines intertwine like kudzu on a ruined mansion.…At a dramatic moment toward the end, most of the instruments drop out, leaving a sibilant G in the upper violas and cellos.…,” it continues, as he describes this testament by an old man looking back on what was, then commenting on it.
Taking in music during the New Deal era, and writing of the many political actors involved with music at the time, music in Weimar and later Nazi Germany, the Jazz Era in America, Stalin’s persecution of artists, Messiaen’s love of nature, John Cage and Morton Feldman, Reich and Glass, a mad sprint through the music of the past 15 or so years, as well as hymning the praises at length of Sibelius, Ross nevertheless overlooks or underplays one fruitful patch of the century. The Italian Fascists, unlike their political cohorts to the North, loved modernity’s fast cars and swooping planes, and this complicated the lives of Italian composers. Once Mussolini rose to power in 1922, composers, who until then hadn’t been expected to take any sort of political stance, were put in the position of collaborating with a government intent on helping them, but a government of a rather unscrupulous nature.
Ross allows that Mussolini’s Italy was “admittedly a less oppressive environment that Hitler’s Germany,” and it’s precisely that atmosphere of accommodation that makes the music composed there worth discussing. I would love to have read Ross on the tone poems of Respighi, the music of Alfredo Casella, who learned the avant-garde tricks of 1920s Paris and married them to his own Italian style, and on the possible rebellions of Gian Franco Malipiero and Ildebrando Pizzetti. In Casella’s Concerto Romano of 1926, which aimed to present the glories of Baroque art in a grand work for orchestra and organ, an innovative composer is attempting to be modern and honoring his government at the same time. And Malipiero devised an extraordinary depiction of Fascist violence in his 1925 opera Filomela e l’Infatuato. A nightingale is torn apart by a group of blackshirted thugs; beauty is destroyed by the gangster mentality, and that is an interesting wrinkle in that time. Ultimately, though, I can understand their exclusion. These are irredeemably minor works compared to Peter Grimes, and I’ve never heard them performed, and doubt that I ever will.
When my copy of The Rest Is Noise arrived, I quickly turned to the acknowledgements to see who’d gone over the manuscript. The names of Richard Taruskin, Peter Burkholder, Michael Kater, and a slew of other important scholars greeted me. When I finished it, I thought, “He’s set the critical paradigm for the next 20 years,” that the way he wrote about the composers, time, and music would be the way that critics will be grappling with for that long. I now think the book will last even longer, his conclusions about the greater importance of composers uninterested in modernity will grow even deeper, and that the music of the past century will mean more to those who read it.
A good critic can open your ears new music that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. The best critics are those who change the way you hear the music you already know well, and lead you even deeper into its enveloping forests. With this book, Ross’s enthusiasm and graceful writing makes helps make the music even more meaningful, and encourages you to go back and listen again, and I can’t think of higher praise than that.