Keeping it down

Why are some sounds considered music and others noise?

beatlles 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
beatlles 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Rest Is Noise By Alex Ross Farrar, Straus and Giroux 640 pages; $30 To try to sum up the entire musical output of the last century in a single book, however weighty a tome it may be (around 600 pages), is either an act of unpardonable hubris or a sincere and considered attempt to convey at least the essence of that dynamic period of artistic evolution. Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century unequivocally pertains to the latter category. While the educated reader will probably get more out of the book, it clearly offers a good read for those who are less knowledgeable about - say - the works of Richard Strauss or Arnold Schoenberg, not to mention lesser-known artists the likes of La Monte Young. The Rest Is Noise is far more than a mere compendium of musical events and works. The average music fan may not always consider that artists have lives outside the confines of their entertaining professional output, but that is something Ross - who has a daytime job as music critic of The New Yorker - depicts in a concise but lyrical manner. How many of us have considered, for example, that much of Richard Strauss's in-your-face approach to his craft was a result of a troubled childhood? Ross describes Strauss's father as "bitter, irascible and abusive" and his mother as a "meek and nervous" woman who eventually went insane. Small wonder, then, that Strauss tended more to the anarchic than the melodic. We are also told that Strauss's Don Juan was influenced by the thinking of composer-philosopher Alexander Ritter, who drew the young Strauss into the "New German" school which favored a more amorphous poetic narrative to the more defined structures of the Viennese tradition. The book divides the century into three principal eras - 1900-1933, 1933-1945 and 1945-2000 - with subdivisions devoted to the likes of "Berlin in the Twenties," "Music in FDR's America" and "Messiaen, Ligeti and the Avant-Garde of the Sixties." But the chronological partitioning is far from rigid. Ross frequently cross-references between seemingly disparate genres by way of illustrating how all generations have their heroes, their pet likes and dislikes and social-political stuff to deal with. He tells us that the burgeoning intelligentsia of the early 20th century memorized Wagnerian librettos "as American college students of a later age would recite Bob Dylan." Not for Ross the highfalutin moral ground. Perhaps Ross's quote from Kurt Weill describes the author's ethos best: "I don't give a damn about writing for posterity," said Weill. "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' music and 'light' music. There is only good music and bad music." Naturally, there are intermittent direct and inferred references to Jewish themes throughout, although some hail from unexpected contexts. There is a chapter, for example, about Hitler's fondness for classical music. Incredibly, following Hitler's rise to power, Richard Strauss is quoted as triumphantly exclaiming: "Thank God, finally a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art!" - the composer was not much perturbed by the new leader's plans for a Final Solution. The same chapter mentions Wagner's much earlier railing against the "Jewification" of German music. And Nazi Germany, it seems, didn't quite have a monopoly on anti-Semitism. Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler's stint at the Met in New York, in 1907, was an unqualified critical and box-office success. However, the man who hired Mahler, Heinrich Conried, was soon ousted as the board had expressed a desire to "work away from the German atmosphere and the Jew." While, by far, the greater part of The Rest Is Noise is devoted to classical music - and its many forms in the last century - Ross also incorporates jazz, pop, rock and Broadway musicals and there is even a chapter entitled: Beethoven Was Wrong - Bop, Rock and Minimalism. The Fab Four get a citation, when note is made of the fact that the Beatles' song "A Day in the Life," off the groundbreaking 1967 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band theme album, incorporates free-flowing ad-libitum instrumental passages. Visionary 20th-century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is cited as an influence on Paul McCartney, who acknowledged this by having Stockhausen's face included on the Sgt. Pepper album cover. The role of technology in the actual composition, production and transmission of music is front and center in the chapter on "Music in FDR's America." The three principal technological advances that Ross feels impacted most on the century's musical landscape are electrical recording, radio transmission and the addition of sound to movies. It is the latter that Ross suggests has led many to unwittingly embrace music they would normally have branded as "noise." Consider avant garde musical seasoning introduced to heighten the drama of particular tense scenes in all manner of Hollywood productions of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. While these may be only brief and sporadic additions, it sheds some light on how the context can have a telling effect on our ability to tolerate - nay, enjoy - sounds that would otherwise be discarded as "so much contemporary garbage." Ross also looks at racial issues in the broader sense, and pinpoints an intriguing confluence between Jews and blacks in jazz and jazz-oriented works. He tells us that much of what white audiences of the 1920s would have considered "jazz" was actually penned by Jewish composers such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Ross muses, too, that "Jewish Americans' identification with black music might have had something to do with inherited memories of European suffering." With its broad canvas, in some ways, The Rest Is Noise not so much charts music in the 20th century as enlightens us about the 20th century through its music.