Thursday, October 20, 2016

"The Rest is Noise": starting from scratch


"Once musicians obtained everything they had imagined in their most daring dreams, they started again from scratch."
(Kurt Weill, 1928)

Battle-lines are still being drawn over the meaning of much twentieth-century music. Often, the music is (still) overlooked in performance as too challenging, too difficult for audiences, trying the patience as well as the comprehension of most listeners who prefer the sounds of Strauss over Stravinsky. Alex Ross, of The New Yorker magazine, tries in his brief if too broad overview The Rest is Noise to put the musical daring of Stravinsky and Sibelius, Cage and Glass, Ellington and even Coltrane (as well as many others, mostly from Europe) in context with the times.

Understandably, two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and economic upheaval produced many fractured forms, and no single view of the century's music can explain it all. But Ross writes entertaining history, even if the reader may be familiar only with the names of many composers. And just when the book begins to take on the brisk, breezy approach of a survey course in modern music, he devotes 35 pages to the rise of Nazism in Germany and its effects on composition, as well as another 45 pages to the smothering effects of Communism.

Even Richard Strauss, whose music had once been a favorite of Hitler's (and whose premiere of Salome, in 1906, marks the opening chapter of the book) eventually becomes an object of ridicule from the German high command. Strauss suffered what Ross writes as "a public breakdown" as a result of a series of psychological games by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's propaganda minister. "He is unpolitical, like a child," Goebbels wrote in his diary about Strauss, who sought assurances for his family's safety. A witness recounted Strauss' public humiliation in front of a large assembly:

"'Lehar has the masses, you do not!' the minister screamed. 'Stop once and for all your chatter about the significance of "serious music"! You are not helping your case! The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday! You, Herr Strauss, are yesterday!'"

Ironically, the effects of this creative chill in Germany and Russia helped to spread the ideas of exiled musicians, who moved anywhere there was freedom to write and perform. (Hollywood became the surprising home to a number of emigre composers, who wrote film scores.) Ross does a good job illustrating how the many threads of modern music that subsequently developed -- serialism, minimalism, atonality -- have become part of a common musical vocabulary familiar to most listeners of popular music, even as "serious music" appears to draw futher from the mainstream.

His book also dispels the notion of a singular, dramatic arc to twentieth-century music -- the conservative notion of modern art as acts only of mere shock, and a dislocation of values. Some of the chapters deserve books of their own (the Russian chapter, although lengthy, still seems just an introduction). Certainly as the perspective on the century lengthens Ross could revisit some of the later themes, which seem slightly rushed. The book's critics claim Ross's leftward leaning politics are clearly in view, but it's hard to argue with his main thesis: that composers spent most of the twentieth century demolishing the romantic forms of the century before it.

But not completely. He begins the book with Strauss's opera Salome -- based not just on the Biblical story of a jealous wife and wanton daughter, but also drawn from a scandalous play written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde. In the audience sat Gustav Mahler, the young Arnold Schoenberg, and Puccini,"the composer of Tosca and La Boheme, who arrived to see what 'terribly cacophanous thing' his German rival had concocted."

The outrage ought to have been complete; Ross writes that Strauss's opera retells the story "in which the princess eroticizes the body of John the Baptist and indulges in a bit of necrophilia at the end." Instead, the Vienna audience erupted in applause and Strauss emerged in triumph, although Mahler later admitted he was "bewildered" by the opera's popularity. Also in the theater that night, with money borrowed from his mother to make the trip, was seventeen-year-old Adolph Hitler; Salome became one of his favorite Strauss works. By the 1940s, Salome was on the list of "degenerate" Jewish music, although Hitler continued to insist versions of it be performed -- the echoes of the nineteenth century, it seemed, would give birth to more things inexplicable than mere music in the twentieth.

The Rest is Noise
is a brief, sometimes confounding introduction to the complexities of modern music. John Adams' Nixon in China (1987) and the beautiful, haunting music and movement of his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic about the life of Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb, move contemporary music even further into new fields of politics and history. In a final chapter Ross careens from Boulez to Terry Riley, from Ligeti to the cool mathematics of Iannis Xenakis; his survey ends in a bit of a spin trying to name-check a multitude of composers for whom music can be a beautiful noise, and vice versa

Is it music, or just noise? In his preface Ross tries to prepare the reader for the journey ahead by quoting John Cage, whose 1952 piece 4'33" is divided into three movements yet involves only the sounds of the audience: "Wherever we are ... what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating."

No comments: