Listening to the Twentieth Century


Last night while riding the CTA’s Purple Line home I was hoping to finish Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century as the train pulled into the Noyse station in Evanston.  I was denied a catchy opening, though, as I finished the epilogue as the train approached the much less mellifluous Dempster station.  The point is I made it all the way to the last word of this long book.  I’ve always found it difficult to sustain interest in discussions of works with which I am not familiar, and Ross’s book is full of them.  I could have gone to my grave without encountering Harrison Birtwistle in print or on record. Now I have, and I also know Benjamin Britten ducked out of the 1968 premier of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy to look for a drink. Ross is a good writer, but not one who has much of a gift for metaphor, so he relies heavily on recondite music terminology in his exegeses. He will discuss chord changes and shifts in keys as if we had any idea what a D minor cord sounded like, or if we did, we could pick it out among the first violins amidst a symphony orchestra in full cry.  Other than frequent trips to Wikipedia and regular visits to Ross’s helpful website, I don’t really have any advice on how to follow along. My own rudimentary musical education helped a little, but not much. I had a brief career as a trumpet player (grades five through nine) playing a largely classical repertoire, so my experience with classical music forms was both intimate and partial. Key changes meant an irritating change in valve fingering. I couldn’t understand why Mozart wanted me to play the ugly-sounding B flat, when F sharp sounded so much better. (As you can see, as a sixth-grade honker, my range was pretty limited.) Surrounded by noisy brass in the back of the orchestra, it was hard to hear much less appreciate how D-flat major resolves into E major.

Ross’s stated intent is to tell the history of the twentieth century through its music. You’re probably not going to learn much about twentieth-century history that you didn’t already know, but it’s a novel experience to review the last century with classical music as its center. The controlling irony of the book is that classical music has been at the periphery of Western culture since World War I. Ross begins his narrative with the performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome in Gratz, Austria on May 16, 1906. Strauss was accompanied by Gustav Mahler, the other "titan of Austro-German music," which, in 1906, essentially meant all serious music. Salome is a weirdly erotic opera—at one point Salome kisses, wetly, the severed head of John the Baptist—but the Austrians loved it. It was probably the last time an aggressively innovative classical work was met with immediate popular acclaim. In 1913 it took Parisians about a week to adjust to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But by 1973, Steve Reich’s Four Organs could only provoke one old lady to whack the stage with her shoe in an attempt to stop the performance. As they became more acclimated to the new music, audiences became more indifferent. Ross himself struggles to maintain our interest as classical music got shunted to the cultural sidelines in the middle of the century. Reading about Strauss and Shostakovich getting bullied by their authoritarian governments isn’t much fun, and even Ross’s powers of description start to falter when distinguishing between obscure Europeans fiddling with twelve-tone rows in the 1950s and 1960s. This period is summed up the by the title of Milton Babbitt’s 1958 essay, "Who Cares If You Listen?"

The story doesn’t pick up again until the 1960s, when rock acts like the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno and, yes, the Beatles start adopting some of the tropes of American composers like Reich and Philip Glass, who themselves had checked out of Adorno’s "Grand Hotel Abyss."  (Adorno is a major villain in Ross’s story.) As classical music embraced rock, jazz, hip hop, and world music in the last decades of the twentieth century, it reintegrated itself back into the center of Western culture. Classical music is correspondingly harder to get one’s hands around, and, as a result, Ross fumbles a bit in wrapping up his account. Osvaldo Golijov, my current favorite contemporary composer (I highly, highly recommend his Oceana and Ainadamar [photo above] and his soundtrack is by far the best part of Coppola’s Youth Without Youth), gets two short paragraphs—this after a whole chapter on the creepy Benjamin Britten.

A good critic makes you want to read or watch or listen to a work he or she is discussing. A great critic makes you want to listen in the same way they do. Ross fits in the second category of critics. It’s impossible, I think, to listen to music–any music–the same way after reading The Rest Is Noise. You may not be able to pick out triads, but you’d have to be tragically closed-minded to not hear something transformative in Schoenberg and Messiaen. Ross is the only music critic who could induce me to listen to Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, then re-listen to Lou Reed’s "Heroin."  As Ross teaches us, the twentieth was that kind of century.

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