Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" is subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century," and that is an apt if laughably understated description. This glorious book is a must-read for anyone interested in music, and also for anyone interested in the ways in which music affects and is affected by society.
I am not a music critic of any subspecies, but I do listen to a fair variety of what is broadly classified as classical music, as well as popular and folk music centered around my own formative era. I know what I like and what I don't like, and for the most part I am content to allow such determinations to translate as good music and bad music.
To his credit, Ross does not tell the reader that a particular composer would do the world a favor by jumping into traffic (James Merrill wrote of his wish that Schoenberg's piano would collapse mid-concert so the audience could flee), but rather sets forth the conflicts and changes in music from the late 1800s through today.
There are acres upon acres of fascinating cultural linkages in this book. The effect of jazz and traditional Negro music on Dvorak and various French composers may seem arcane and brutally old, but this week I heard the Eugene Symphony perform a set of traditional spirituals with the splendid young baritone Nathan Myers. The guest conductor, David Alan Miller, mentioned some of this history in his introductory remarks, and then proceeded to conduct a set of eight songs re-set with orchestra by eight different living composers.
When I saw this dangerously modern item on the program, I expected something that I could barely put up with between Smetana's "Moldau" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. In fact Myers was superb and the modern orchestrations were interesting and often gorgeous. Miller's comments could have come directly from "The Rest is Noise" and perhaps they did. History matters. History is relevant. History is happening.
Also here are the excruciating political entanglements of Shostakovitch, the iconic swirl and unexpected political difficulties of Richard Strauss, the dark musical involvements of Hitler and his enablers, all in perfect balance. I have never understood the "why" of Schoenberg, atonalism and the strange unpleasant sound-splatter they caused and still cause in music, but having read Ross's history of this, I have a better feel for it. It still sounds awful, but the reasons why we hear some of it even today are more clear.
What Ross does better than many writers is create and maintain connective tissue. He recognizes the flow of key events and adds only those side details that really build the story. I am reminded of such books as John Keegan's "The Price of Admiralty," Roy Jenkins's books on Gladstone and Churchill, Michael Barone's "Our Country" or Robert Massie's "Dreadnought." The perfect blend of detail, consequence and insight is rare, and Alex Ross is a master.
Just one example is his description of the Prokofiev opera "Semyon Kotko" in which "a change in Soviet foreign policy forced a revision of the opera's libretto. The signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 meant that Germans could no longer be depicted as villains."
The tone, however, almost always stays fairly light, with doses of appropriate humor, such as the inclusion of a scene in which American soldiers, not recognizing a bust of Beethoven, cause Strauss to grumble that "if they ask one more time, I'm telling them it's Hitler's father."
The long autumn sunset of Stravinsky, the long vernal sunrise of Copland, the clattering surge of twelve-tone sound and the late twentieth century advent of so-called "minimalist' composers such as Philip Glass are all here.
Ross is writing expressly about classical music, but toward the end of the book he begins including references to song and popular music. I hope that this is a teaser for his next book; little would be more worth anticipating than Alex Ross on the last 100 years of American song.
By way of epilogue, I sent Alex Ross a thank-you note, together with a CD featuring the Symphony No. 1 of Australian composer Colin Brumby. Ross, no culture-snob, sent me back an e-mail saying he had never heard Brumby before, loved the symphony and did I have any more Brumby? I sent him Brumby's piano concerto and two clarinet works this week.
History is happening.