Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Paperback)

Harper Perennial, 2009 (695pp)

4 November 2009 3 stars

The Rest is NoiseThe Rest is Noise, a timely summing up of the previous century's art music, has finally been published in paperback, offering us the opportunity to reassess this multiple award-winning book. Its original publication in 2007 was greeted with near unanimous praise from the English-speaking press on both sides of the Atlantic. This was not due to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's scholarly originality – the lion's share of the factual material is adapted from the well-known composer biographies – but rather his ability to explain a notoriously intimidating topic in friendly, inviting prose. Indeed, the book's real selling point is the novelistic way in which Ross evokes the actual experience of listening to what is often very difficult music. The social and political background is also covered in all its contradictory complexity, but, although he attempts a balanced view, his assumptions do contain an underlying conservative bias, something that affects his critical judgement.

In the opening chapters, where he discusses an early performance of Strauss's Salome in Graz in 1906 and the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris seven years later, Ross reveals a flair for dramatic pacing and recreating atmosphere. In the style of a television documentary, scenes from the day – arranged to build up a sense of anticipation – are spliced with biographical, historical and political contextualization so that we can appreciate just how high the stakes were. The presentation of the music and the reactions of audiences and peers conjure up a feeling of nostalgia for that 'Golden Age' (the title of the first chapter) when it was possible to write radically original music that would still enter the standard repertory.

The rest of the book is devoted to the post-1918 years, when high art was no longer the art of the ruling elite but that of a dwindling band of self-appointed intellectuals. The question animating Ross's discussion is, while poetry, drama, the novel and fine art have managed to carve out a post-terminal relevance, why has new art music become increasingly marginalized? He doesn't attempt to answer with some glib hypothesis; instead, with what initially appears to be detached objectivity, he follows the tortuous debates between those who stood in violent opposition to mass culture and those who tried to reach out to audiences.

All of our European favourites are included: Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Messiaen, Britten and Ligeti are the most prominent. Ross's even-handed approach works best for Shostakovich, who has been unfairly abused by scholars over the last couple of decades. Those on the right – lead by prominent music historian Richard Taruskin – see him as a loyal communist, while the left see him coding dissident messages in his symphonies. Artistic life in a totalitarian state rarely lends itself to such neat dichotomies, and Ross, realizing this, gives a more realistic picture of a tragic non-hero coerced into nervous compliance. The NKVD (precursor of the KGB) transcripts of what Soviet composers said about Shostakovich when they thought they were in private are chilling and – as far as I know – only available in English here.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the nationality of the author and the majority of the intended audience, there is an emphasis on American composers and on the time European composers spent in the US. This is a boon for European readers who may not be so familiar with the new-music scene on the other side of the Atlantic. I was fascinated, for example, to find out how music figured in the Depression and Roosevelt's New Deal. Highlights from the Cold War include the comical scene of Copland being dragged before McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee, essentially for being gay and writing music people actually liked, only to suffer the further indignity of the members not even knowing who he was. Chapters dealing with bebop, West-coast minimalism, East-coast experimentalism and John Adams’s post-minimalist opera Nixon in China bespeak American composers' greater willingness to accommodate popular music in a more productive way.

Alex RossWhile the detailed engagement with the American side of the story will be welcomed, some readers may find that the ideological undertow of the book makes Ross's argument uncomfortably tendentious elsewhere. In the preface, he is keen to stress how the history he presents will not be the 'teleological tale' that many accounts of this material slip into. However, although he rightly jettisons the discredited 'breakdown of tonality' trope, he does hang his history on another grand narrative: the triumph in the twentieth century of American economic liberalism.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of this is that he ends up fundamentally misunderstanding the German debate surrounding fascism. He writes: 'Theodore Adorno professed to see proto-Fascist tendencies in Weimar's communitarian music making.... There is nothing intrinsically fascistic about the longing to connect music to a community; it can just as easily serve as a vehicle for the propagation of democratic thought.' Adorno, as much as anybody, 'longed' for a state of democracy in which music would bind the community together; his point is that the Gebrauchsmusik of the Weimar period is fascistic because it attempts to impose a fake sense of community on a patently undemocratic society. This is still relevant to artistic production today, because the system of plutocracy currently in place in most modernized countries is very far from being democratic. If music is going to provide any impetus towards true democracy, it cannot shirk away from exposing the gulf that separates actual inequality from the democratic ideal we all purport to share. It might be going too far to call all music that blithely smoothes over this difference 'fascistic'; we might certainly call it mendacious though.

This brings us on to another problem. Ross’s confusion of free-market capitalism with democracy infects his evaluative criteria, causing him to privilege exactly those affirmative moments that do try to paper over the cracks. For example, he describes the unearned redemptive music towards the end of Berg's Wozzeck as a 'masterstroke'. Deeply moving music it may be, but this 'false catharsis' (to paraphrase Joseph Kerman) fatally undermines the socially critical momentum that has been painstakingly built up in the rest of the opera. Another example is the music accompanying the epiphanies in Messiaen’s 1983 opera St Francis of Assisi, in which, according to Ross, 'listeners may catch a glimpse of whatever they consider divine.' But these moments of artificial, manufactured spirituality betray the fact that the sense of shared community necessary for authentic spiritual feeling is all but absent in the modern world.

In the epilogue Ross argues that 'the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual sense' and looks forward to a bright future in which 'intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers [speak] more or less the same language.' There is also room for those composers who choose political engagement: music is the perfect medium since its ambiguity means it always '[fails] to decide the eternal dispute.' It is strange how one person’s utopia is another's dystopia. What Ross is describing here, for me, is the nightmare in which music has been effectively neutralized as a critical art form. I agree that it has become impossible to distinguish high from low art, but in a society which houses such manifest divergence between rich and poor, and a world in which a minority shamelessly exploit the poverty of the rest, that must mean that this art is a sham. Further, the mere ambiguity that music is left with surely mirrors its impotence in challenging a political system that successfully absorbs all dissent. Human beings are endlessly creative and composers will no doubt continue to invent new and exciting soundscapes for consumption but, for now, the days in which music genuinely speaks to its audience are over.

By Marc Brooks

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