I HAVE MADE MY LIVING as a composer and conductor for over 30 years, standing in front of a symphony orchestra waving my baton or sitting before a blank sheet of manuscript paper gnawing a pencil, and I can say with all confidence that The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross is simply the best book about music that I have ever read. Ross clearly loves music, but so do many people; Ross’s genius is that he can describe music. One can try for example, to ramble on about the Moonlight Sonata. Of course it’s “pretty,” “melodic,” even “hypnotic,” but most of us eventually reach a verbal Waterloo, where, defeated by Beethoven’s power, surrender by saying simply: “Indescribable. It’s music and beautiful. That’s all you need to know.”
Thankfully, Ross can do better. Using a distinctive palette of metaphors and similes, he makes familiar works seem altogether fresh, and renders those pesky, dense, and contemporary “difficult” pieces completely accessible – that dreaded word. Here is Ross on Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra (listen to a lo-fi version
or download [link]):
The final movement is a phantasmagoric March for full orchestra, replete with thudding drumbeats and craggy brass fanfares. Notes blacken the page; instruments become an angry mob, spilling from the sidewalks into the streets. Right at the end comes a brief mirage of peace: phrases curl upward in the orchestra like wisps of cloud, and a solo violin plays a keening phrase. All the while, the harp and the celesta strike monotonous notes, which sound like the ticking of a bomb.
As a composer, I am always asked by audience members: “What’s it about?” I never answer. But modern-day listeners are hungry for a description, any description, to help them make the leap from the non-verbal medium of music to a – for them – more accessible verbal one. Ross’s recasting of the Berg is a perfect aid to understanding his music, and helping to understand music is, quite frankly, the true function of a music critic. Would that Ross could lecture before every concert I attend. In the meantime I check his index before concerts hoping that he lent his considerable talents to describing a piece I’m about to hear.
It is impossible to power through The Rest of Noise without interruption, because after a paragraph or two, his prose compels the reader to put down the book, fire up the CD, and listen to the piece just described, hearing it again with newly “Ross-ified” ears. And not just the highlighted section, but the piece in its entirety. Not since E.M. Forster described Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Howard’s End, has a book so changed the way I understand and listen to a composition.
Here is Ross describing Ravel’s La Valse [lo-fi listen here:
It begins as a nostalgic journey in three-quarter time, Old Europe waltzing in the twilight. A stepwise intensification of dissonance and dynamics suggests the fury of the war just past, the wedding of aristocratic pride to the machinery of destruction. In the last moments, with trombones snarling and percussion rattling, the music becomes brassy, sassy, and fierce. Suddenly we seem to be in the middle of a flapper gin party – and there is no reason to feel any jolt of transition, since the Roaring Twenties were underwritten by the same fortunes that had financed the prewar balls. This is a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past toward those of the near future.
I heard this piece in concert just yesterday afternoon, and all I can say is, “Yes! Oh, yes.” He takes the music out of the concert hall and shows it as an expression of political and historical ideas. Furthermore, I defy the reader to resist spending the next 20 minutes listening to Ravel’s masterpiece, now filtered and influenced by Ross’s prose. (I recommend Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic [link].)
], or go to Ross’s website and hear a clip there [link]. The following describes Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, composed after the death of Webern’s mother.
In the middle of the sequence is a funeral procession, which begins in ominous quiet, with a rumble of drums, gong, and bells. Various groups of instruments, trombones predominating, groan chords of inert, imploded character. An E-flat clarinet plays a high, wailing, circling melody. An alto flute responds in low, throaty tones. Muted horn and trumpet offer more lyric fragments, over subterranean chords. Then the trombones rise to a shout, and the winds and the brass fall in line behind them. The piece is crowned with a crushing sequence of nine- and ten-note chords, after which the percussion begins its own crescendo and builds to a pitch-liquidating roar.
The Rest is Noise is doing exactly what its subtitle says: Listening to the Twentieth Century. In addition to the colorful and insightful descriptions of both major and minor musical masterpieces, the reader encounters the non-musicians of the century: men and women who came in direct contact with the masters. It seems that the dictators and dictated-to had a mighty hand in shaping the music of the twentieth century as well as its politics, at least the first half.
The century began with the mystique of revolution, with the mind-bending harmonies and earthshaking rhythms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The process of politicization was already under way in the twenties, as composers competed to stay ahead of changing trends and accused one another of complicity in regressive tendencies. In the thirties and forties the entire Romantic tradition was effectively annexed by the totalitarian state. But nothing could compare to what happened when the Second World War ended and the Cold War began. Music exploded into a pandemonium of revolutions, counterrevolutions, theories, polemics, alliances, and party splits. The language of modern music was reinvented on an almost yearly basis.
In exploring the history of the century through its music and composers, Ross cannot avoid discussing the demise of classical music as a popular art form. For a composer, it’s astonishing to read about a time when classical music mattered to the masses and their leaders considered it dangerous enough to declare it verboten. Imagine Bush or Obama taking an interest in Jake Heggie’s newest opera or William Bolcom’s latest song cycle. (I suspect I should even be grateful to Tipper Gore and her rap-censoring overlords for actually caring enough about music to put parent advisory labels on CDs.) Just a few of the non-playing players to make an appearance are: Hitler (and his obsessive relationship with Wagner’s music, especially Parsifal), Lenin, Mann, Cocteau, Kandinsky, Nabokov, Nietzsche, Chaplin, Sinatra, Chanel, and hundreds of others.
The heart and soul of this book is the music. The musicians discussed are mostly familiar, though some are more obscure: Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, George Antheil, Antonin Dvorak, Darius Milhaud, Jelly Roll Morton, Giacomo Puccini, Ives, Ellington, Sibelius, Weill, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Erich Korngold, Virgil Thomson, Benny Goodman, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Oliver Messiaen, Louis Armstrong, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Britten, Copeland, Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Oliver Knussen, Lucas Foss, Pierre Boulez, Chet Baker, Bob Dylan, Richard Rodgers, John Cage, Arvo Part, Henry Cowell, Morton Feldman, The Beatles, Thomas Ades and the beat goes on. It is an astounding feat of musical criticism for, although the book is hardly more than 500 pages, The Rest is Noise is no Reader’s Digest edition of Famous Composers. No composer seems to be slighted in the least, and the ones that are explored in depth get their well-deserved due.
The most heartbreaking chapter is “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia,” where Shostakovich lives his life waiting for Stalin’s henchman to open the door and take him away to be shot. Yet, as Shostakovich said: “The authorities tried everything they knew to get me to repent and expiate my sin” of composing subversive music. “Instead of repenting, I composed my Fourth Symphony.”
“Invisible Men” explores African-American composers in the early part of the century – composers who are completely forgotten today, largely due to an early racial barrier. How I would love to hear the music of Harry Lawrence Freeman, Maurice Arnold Strothotte, and Will Marion Cook, the latter who, as described by Ross, dreamed of being a “black Beethoven, burned to the bone by the African sun.” If you are a “chapter surfer” – and this book can certainly be surfed – this is the perfect chapter.
Bons mots abound. I perversely adored reading about sniping among legendary colleagues. Copland comments on a trip to Mexico: “At last I have found a country where I am as famous as Gershwin!” Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Eisler, Rachmaninov, Hindemith, and Bartok were all raging with jealousy when NBC and Toscanini broadcasted Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony to a hitherto unimaginably large audience. Schoenberg: “With music like this, one must be grateful that he has not already gone up to Symphony No. 77!”
And here’s a favorite: Jacqueline Kennedy, who created the illusion of the White House as an endless Parisian salon, talking about her husband’s musical sophistication: “The only music he likes is ‘Hail to the Chief.'”
I do have a small quibble with Ross’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein. While Ross gives justifiable respect to West Side Story, Bernstein is egregiously dismissed as a less-than-serious composer. Having known the great man personally, I admit to being happily biased; nothing but unbridled, unqualified praise would suit this devotee. Since the initial publication of this book, two important recordings of Mass and an overwhelming triumph of his once banished-to-oblivion opera, A Quiet Place, might indeed persuade the doubters to reexamine Bernstein’s work.
Ross has since published his latest book on music, Listen to This, and it is every bit as enjoyable and musically erudite as The Rest is Noise. But I was thrilled when the LARB editors asked me to review this book instead, because it gave me the joy of rereading this masterpiece – and, of course, re-listening to the music described. Now I have to go grab my iPod and listen to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.