The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century (2007), by Alex Ross


Ross has given us a comprehensive and, even more happily, a dramatic gift of scholarship and history about an entire century of music that seems to have disappeared down a dark hole. His announced drama is of  “the cultural plight of the twentieth century composer,” the “obscure pandemonium” of that music leading to the story of the often broke, scuffling, self-exiled, uprooted, persecuted and/or largely ignored twentieth century composers, their plight worsening as they dodged bullets and bombs, fled, risked and/or met violent death, and lived daily with historical good and evil upheaval amidst the ramping-up of war-making technology, leading to what John Cage, that Zen Sage, that Lord of Absurd, called a century wherein music flowed not as a river or two but ended up a “delta.” Ross’s composer heroes (or perhaps anti-heroes) are the twentieth century masters of classical and jazz music, with other music in the world, often crucially influential, brought in as it affected those master-composers, many of them increasingly neglected if not almost forgotten.

What happened?

The prodigies were there, just as they’ve been earlier. Consider some of the talent in the twentieth century: Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Webern, Adams, Reich, Glass, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Copland, Gershwin, Ellington, Ives, Harris, Cage, Stockhausen, Bartok, Armstrong, Goodman, Parker, Davis, Coltrane, Britten, Vaughan-Williams, Boulez, Feldman, Hindemith, Janacek, Ligeti, Messiaen, Milhaud, Mingus, Monk, Orff, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Riley, Bernstein, Strayhorn, Sessions, Weill, Whiteman, and Herrmann, to provide a partial list from Ross’s long scroll of an Index. When you go through his index, long-sleeping memories of the long-ago heard, awaken, signaling the problem.

Cagey Cage’s Century Twenty musical delta: Just a cursory list: Romanticism, Atonalism, Modernism, Post Modernism, Minimalism, Serialism, Spectralism, Silent Music, Swing, bebop, Free, Fusion, Tonal, Aleatory and…well, you could disappear slogging through that enormous delta.

The “Austro-Germanic” era–Grand Romanticism prior to the twentieth century–Bach, Beetoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Italian Opera and so on–had some great advantages: Royal patronage; the New Deal and other sponsorship of that tradition in America in the 1920s to the 1950s, especially the radio broadcasts of the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan starring Toscanini, Caruso, Melchor, Rubinstein, Horowitz and colleagues carrying forward to Leonard Bernstein, the Conductor (at the expense of the Composer); the acrobatic Van Cliburn; Public Television broadcasts of concerts; and Classics radio stations with their focus-grouped list of the one hundred “winners” to play and, barely known by exclusion, the numerous “losers,” nearly all of them from the twentieth century.

Schoenberg called that traditional music schlock and bourgeois. He and his ilk were revolutionaries, and Grand Romanticism’s “aesthetic of gigantic beauty” seemed to them fraudulent and inauthentic in the twentieth century. It even seemed a corruption. After all, Hitler’s favorites were Wagner and Bruckner, and he had no quarrel with Brahms, Mozart and other earlier masters. As did Hitler, Stalin reportedly loved the Grand Romantic musical era and had a modern gramophone and a sizable collection of that music and would often regale terrified captive audiences of his cohorts with his own musical analyses of Past Grandeur. His long and sadistic terrifying of Shostakovich was an outrage, if perhaps one of the monstrous Stalin’s lesser ones. And so, at least in Europe, certainly part of the “aesthetic of gigantic beauty” came to seem to the new composers, many (e.g., in Vienna) suffering a tightening anti-semitism, to give fancy to totalitarianism.

Ross offers no grand vision or explanation about the plight of serious twentieth century music. Probably he omits wisely. But he has done eleven years of digging (this is his debut book after a period as music critic for The New Yorker)–a herculean effort out of love and appreciation–that finally makes possible a rich, vital speculation on the music of the late, great century, a century in many places and instances not very livable and often a parade of horrors not from a worsening of the Hyde side of us but owing to ever greater “multiplier effects” of evil, the ongoing drama we all worry about.

In twentieth century Europe, it was a blend of the natural artistic impulse to rebel against the past and the usual love-hate dilemma in that impulse. We leave behind Madame Butterfly to come to Strauss’s Salome in which that heroine, daughter-in-law of the incestuous Herod, kisses sexually the dead, chopped-off head of John the Baptist, with Strauss linking love and death in this necrophilliac nightmare of great dissonance, and, we must say, thereby being terribly prescient in 1906 of what was to come. Then there were the follow-up Naturalistic operas (fate and the Darwinian Meridian determine all in human affairs, as dramatized most strongly among the poor and luckless), such as Wozzeck and Lulu and Peter Grimes, together with the savage atonality of Schoenberg’s music of Darwinian and Freudian shrieks. As in Picasso’s Guernica, the triumph of form comes in the dramatization of horror in a terrible time. Of course, not all was darkness. There was Sibelius in his Northern Woods, a recluse who achieved a balance (and popularity); and Prokofiev, perhaps under the spell of nostalgia, composed his Classical Symphony. But such were far from the standard. Above all, there was that pinnacle of twentieth century music, Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Pure Nature. Grand and frightening. A miracle of art. We still listen to it. (Ross points out that by contrast Schoenberg’s atonalism ended up in the chase scenes of the Tom and Jerry cartoons. He’s right.)

In America, there was much scuffling from the start. Except for FDR’s sponsorship of composers in the 1930s, e.g., Copland and Harris, the times were sadly lean, though Gershwin and Bernstein and Copland and a few others got prosperous or comfortable or at least got by.

I think there is a very understandable futility in much of the desperate, rushed, obsessive experimental twentieth century classical music, especially in Europe with people like Stockhausen and the irritating Boulez. Perhaps it’s well-captured in a story about an American cousin to them, the minimalist Steve Reich. Reich loved bebop and Post-bop (as did Stravinsky who went often to hear Charlie Parker in New York and was thrilled when Parker quoted the opening of Rite in a version of “Ko-Ko” one evening at Birdland–and Stravinsky later wrote Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman; and Schoenberg pronounced that Atonalism and bebop are kin). Reich followed John Coltrane around jazz clubs in New York. He said of Coltrane that his music “just came out, as right there, and when he was done playing, Coltrane just went away into the night.” It’s akin to the admiration for the “macho” Jackson Pollack’s “action” painting. Eventually, Reich, fascinated with bop and Coltrane, discovers while playing around with tape recorders a version of minimalism that is entirely an accident of phasing from machines not quite synched. But is Coltrane’s music accidental? Much “accidental” music such as Reich’s discovery of the out-of-phase sound patterns, or “Zen” music of “chance” (e.g., Cage), and other “I Ching” compositions–the music rendered in the spirit of “lets try it out and see what it sounds like”–doesn’t work because it doesn’t have the heroic artist behind it. It isn’t composed out of a deep, inner, personal narrative urge.  It has no real vision. Its significance is entirely accidental if not, after the novelty wears off, cheap experimentalism: e.g., Cage’s 4′ 33″ in which the pianist sits at the piano but never strikes a note for the entire “piece.” This seems the stuff Esquire and Vanity Fair like to feature for “shock value” and/or titillation in our sound-bite media. Salvador Dali, a great painter, was very good at this self-promoting shock-schlock. Atonalism isn’t really like bebop. Nor does Reich credit Coltrane’s seemingly endless sessions in the “woodshed” of practice in which he painfully, slowly, fashioned his style and compositions.

Ross is most generous and worthy. Twentieth century music captured the century. Atonal dissonance especially reflected tumultuous Europe, gave form to the tragedy of a century whose “specific heresy,” as the writer Gladys Schmitt observed, is “a belief in violence.” In the meantime, mainstream twentieth century music in America stands and sounds apart from that of Europe, especially when it conveys the enormous spaciousness of the New World. And the crazy experimentalism? It seems understandable in our modern soundbite culture so adverse to narrative, so disheartening to the heroic artist.

Perhaps Cage furnishes a suitable epilog. Once, signed to give a lecture to some very stuck-up classics elitists, he got up after being introduced and declared, “I am here and there is nothing to discuss.” After the shock, questions started coming. To each he replied only, “Please repeat your question.”

Yes, defiance ran deep among some twentieth century composers. What price integrity, though? After all, for a while, Steve Reich and Philip Glass made ends meet in New York by forming a two-man plumbing company. Wow.

Ross has given us a great gift.