[JPL] The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

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chicagotribune.com

Not so harmonious

Alex Ross takes a look at contemporary classical music and artists

By James Marcus

Tribune Newspapers: Newsday

December 29, 2007


The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 640 pages, $30

Robert Frost once referred to his life -- and by extension, his art -- as a
sustained "lover's quarrel with the world." On the basis of Alex Ross'
superb study of contemporary classical music, "The Rest Is Noise," we might
ascribe a related clash to the composers of the last century: a lover's
quarrel with the audience.

There is, to be sure, more than a sprinkling of populists in the author's
pantheon. Such card-carrying modernists as Aaron Copland, Dmitri
Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky managed to wheedle their way into the
public's heart -- and none other than Arnold Schoenberg earned a hysterical
ovation at the 1913 premiere of "Gurre-Lieder," as if he had just won the
final round of "Dodecaphonic Idol."

Still, it has been a century of tough sledding for audiences and artists
alike, even as the skirmishes between atonal Crips and diatonic Bloods
finally dissolved into a postmodern free-for-all.

Not that Ross is hanging his head over these developments. They make for a
bracing narrative, which he traces back to the primordial friction between
Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, the twin titans of the late Romantic era.
His book opens, in fact, at the Austrian premiere of Strauss' "Salome" in
1906. In this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play, the
crowd-pleasing composer knew exactly how far he could stray from the safe
harbor of traditional harmony. He kicked off the opera by stacking two
distant keys atop one another, plunging the listener into what Ross calls
"an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites
meet." Yet the audience ate it up, seduced by the onstage kinkiness and by
Strauss' insinuating score.

Mahler was less lucky. Despite some undoubted triumphs in his lifetime, his
music fell on a good many deaf ears: His first symphony was a semi-flop, and
the percussive bombardment of his sixth was compared, we read, "to German
military hardware." This neurotic genius looked forward to a future when his
creations would nose out the competition, meaning Strauss. In any case, he
passed on the torch to the so-called Second Viennese School -- Schoenberg,
Berg and Webern -- who made Mahler's most-agonized experiments sound like a
walk in the Prater.

>From here Ross' narrative ramifies outward. In Vienna, Schoenberg and his
crew tossed the last vestiges of tonality overboard. In his massive "Theory
of Harmony," dedicated to "the hallowed memory of Gustav Mahler," Schoenberg
propped up his proto-12-tone system with some loony arguments, insisting
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 Paris, meanwhile, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and
Russian transplant Igor Stravinsky were whipping up what Ross calls "an
alternative modernism, one that would reach maturity in the stripped-down,
folk-based, jazz-happy, machine-driven music of the twenties." Even the
philistine America had its icon-smashing innovator (and quintessential
Yankee) in Charles Ives.

This all sounds neater than it is. One of the many virtues of Ross' book --
aside from his conspicuous wit and intelligence -- is his allergic reaction
to the very notion of artistic progress. Music is not a mousetrap, to be
upgraded by each succeeding generation. The author declines to tell "a
teleological tale, a goal-obsessed narrative full of great leaps forward and
heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoisie. When the concept of progress
assumes exaggerated importance, many works are struck from the historical
record on the grounds that they have nothing new to say." Instead he swoops
in and out, doubles back when necessary, and opts for the confusing,
cross-pollinating overlap of musical traditions.

In many cases, it's the outlying eccentrics -- Olivier Messiaen, Jean
Sibelius, Morton Feldman, John Cage or minimalist magician Steve Reich --
who prompt the author's most passionate advocacy. The composers themselves,
of course, were seldom so even-handed. In fact, if Joseph Stalin is the
primary villain of this narrative, applying the psychological thumbscrews to
Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, I would nominate the insanely schismatic
Pierre Boulez as its secondary imp. Sinking his claws into his predecessors
was a great tonic for this postwar king of the cats. Stravinsky, Messiaen
and Ravel were all written off as fumblers, and when Schoenberg died in
1951, Boulez critiqued the older man's "ostentatious and obsolete
romanticism" in an obituary.

Boulez went on to redeem himself, creating music that suggests a more
astringent Messiaen and conducting some classically pellucid recordings of
Mahler (among many other composers). And that may be the other lesson of
"The Rest Is Noise." "Extremes become their opposites in time," as Ross puts
it. "Schoenberg's scandal-making chords, totems of the Viennese artist in
revolt against bourgeois society, seep into Hollywood thrillers and postwar
jazz."

The author's treatment of jazz, and vernacular music in general, tends to be
a little glancing. That doesn't alter his point about the
interconnectedness, the simultaneity, of musical experience, which is still
regularly shortchanged by our cultural gatekeepers. "Music history," Ross
writes, "is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe,
a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and
continuous." "The Rest Is Noise" is anything but flat. This elegant book
imparts to the music itself -- that airy and elusive vibration -- what so
many critics cannot: three dimensions. Just listen.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune


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