Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross

True enough: we live in a time, unlike Hamlet, when even our rest is noisy. The great challenge of modern music has been to turn our noise into music. The ways that composers and mucisians have addressed that challenge, skillfully evoked by Ross in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, reflect the turmoil, horror, and wonder of our age.

Reading Ross's book is like watching a good TV procedural: swiftly unfolding plots and sub-plots are peppered with moments of nearly incomprehensible—for this reader, anyway—jargonistic detail. But, as with those procedurals, the jargonistic detail is a pleasure. (One of the things I like best as a reader is to be made to feel a little bit stupid.) When Ross gives us a careful reading of Three Places in New England, for example, by Charles Ives, he says: "The chord fuses triads of A minor and D-sharp minor, and, as in Salome and the Rite, the tritone gap between them hints at unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflict." Well, I don't quite follow that. But I follow it just enough. And, more to the point, I appreciate that I'm in the hands of an expert. We travel the world, from Stravinsky to Radiohead, and I'm always aware that despite my occasional confusion, Ross, like the artists he celebrates, is worth listening to.

He does his readers the additional favor of including recordings of the music he discusses at his blog, aptly named "The Rest is Noise." The blog is more than a favor, actually; it's a treasure trove of sonic delights. With or without the book, it merits your bookmark.

If you have any interest in modern music, from Mahler to Schoenberg to Messiaen to the Beatles to Bjork, you've found your map in The Rest Is Noise. And you'll learn a lot about 20th century world history along the way.

Update: Taking a moment once again to read some of Ross's blog, I came across this astonishing quote—from a letter in which Wagner (of all people!) says he hopes to be forgotten:
I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy, for I know at the same time that it is not art in general which will perish but only our own particular type of art—which stands remote from modern life—, whereas true—imperishable—constantly renewed art is still to be born. The monumental character of our art will disappear, we shall abandon our habit of clinging firmly to the past, our egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price: we shall let the past remain the past, the future—the future, and we shall live only in the present, in the here and now, and create works for the present age alone. Remember how fortunate I once considered you were in the practice of your own particular art, precisely because you were a performing artist, a real, actual artist whose every performance was clearly an act of giving: the fact that you could do so only upon a musical instrument was not your fault but the involuntary constraint of our age which compels the individual to depend entirely upon his own resources and renders impossible that sense of fellowship through which the individual artist, with the greatest possible deployment of his powers, might become part of a communal—immediate and actual—work of art. It was certainly not any wish to flatter you which made me say those things, rather was I—half-consciously—expressing my belief that only the performer is the real, true artist. All that we create as poets and composers expresses a wish but not an ability: only the performance itself reveals that ability or art. Believe me, I should be ten times happier if I were a dramatic performer instead of a dramatic poet and composer. — Now that I have come to hold this conviction, it can no longer be of interest to me to create works which I know in advance must be denied all life in the present in return for the flattering prospect of future immortality: what cannot be true today will remain untrue in the future as well. No longer do I abandon myself to the delusive idea of creating works for a future beyond the present: but if I am to create works for the present age, that age must offer me a less repellent aspect than is now the case. I renounce all fame, and more especially the insane specter of posthumous fame, because I love humankind far too dearly to condemn them, out of self-love, to the kind of poverty of ideas which alone sustains the fame of dead composers.

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