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March 2021

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

The "About" page on this blog says that it's "Books and music, mostly." So what could be more appropriate here than a book about music? I don't actually read very many of those, and maybe I should. This one was certainly worthwhile, to say the least. Only the fact that I don't have anything to compare it to keeps me from saying that it's essential for anyone interested in modern classical music. On second thought, I'll say that anyway, with the proviso that I'm not saying it's the only essential.

Subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century," and published early in this century, it's a comprehensive and judicious account of the wild journey of music over the past hundred-and-some years. It's the story of both the music itself and those who composed it, in roughly equal parts history and musicology (or, as Peter Schickele used to say "musicalology"). It begins with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906. Not the premiere, which had happened some months earlier, but a performance in Graz (Austria) which was attended by Mahler (and his wife, who certainly had some significance in music), Schoenberg, Berg--and, surprisingly, Puccini. 

Within a few pages Ross has sketched the scene, the personalities, and the cultural situation, then delved into the work itself, from overview to musical details. It's done with great skill and clarity. The two paragraphs of musical exposition take you very quickly from a couple of fundamental concepts (the octave, the fifth, the fourth, the third) to something fairly subtle:

The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second to G major. This is an unsettling opening for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, a half-step narrower than the perfect fifth.... This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears....

And if you don't have the ear and the training to grasp that, and don't have a recording of Salome handy, there's a web site accompanying the book which has audio excerpts illustrating many (or all?) of the musical examples considered in detail in the text. (Click here to hear the music described above.)

Ross is a vivid, clear, and personable writer--qualities which are by no means inextricably associated with music criticism. You feel like you're listening to a very good teacher, the sort who knows his subject deeply and can communicate it effectively.

And he has another quality which I value in anyone who opines about music: openness. He seems to have no strong stake in the argument between modernist and anti-modernist camps about the viability of the traditional system of Western music, taking the music on its own terms.

Sometimes I suspect the reality of the music under discussion may not have very good terms of its own--as, for instance, the apparently respectful reference to "R. Murray Schafer's radical music-theater cycle Patria, which can only be performed in the forests and lakes of the Canadian north." I admit to being slightly curious about that. But better to err in the direction of openness than the opposite.

My acquaintance with 20th century music is scattershot (well, so is my acquaintance with almost everything). This book has given me some helpful guidance as to where I might want to direct my attention. 


Psalm 105:16-18

(Darn, I missed another day, and with even less excuse than the last one: I actually sat down at my computer to do it, then got distracted and forgot.)

Moreover, he called for a dearth upon the land
 and destroyed all the provision of bread.
But he had sent a man before them 
 even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant,
Whose feet they hurt in the stocks;
 the iron entered into his soul.


To give you an example of why I find this translation so poetically rich, here is the Grail translation:

When the Lord called down a famine on the land
and ruined the crop that sustained them,
He sent a man before them,
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They had weighed him down with fetters,
and he was bound with chains....

There is nothing at all wrong with that. It's clear and by no means ugly. But "destroyed all the provision of bread" has more punch, as does "the iron entered into his soul." That latter is possibly inaccurate. But can you say it's really wrong as a description of the way it would feel to be bound with chains?

Psalm 31:5-6

Draw me out of the net, that they have laid privily for me 
 for thou art my strength.
Into thy hands I commend my spirit 
 for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth.


Psalm 50:16-17

(I missed yesterday, due to a significant variation in my daily routine. I don't do well with those.) 

Why dost thou preach my laws, and takest my covenant in thy mouth;
Whereas thou hatest to be reformed and hast cast my words behind thee?