Alex Ross is the most important arts critic writing for the New Yorker. I do not mean he is the best writer (though he may be) or the most intelligent (also possible). Rather, more than his contemporaries, he draws an attention of rare sensitivity to modern classical music—a sphere of cultural activity that shows few signs of recovering in any respect from its mid-20th century decline.
Turn to any classical music radio station, and it will be a miracle if a week of continuous listening results in hearing more than one piece from the 20th century. My local station, like most, considers classical music a kind of floral wallpaper, soothing, mostly harmless: its most popular program might be the mid-workday accompaniment, “Island of Sanity.” My local symphony was recently considered adventurous for putting on György Ligeti’s Requiem for the first time: one of the best works of 20th century music, which debuted in 1965, the same year as The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. This is a weird fact of 20th century listening, and it has more to do with the hidebound stodginess of wealthy subscribers and patrons, who tend to cough through entire concerts, than with the preferences of listeners. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s musical kleptomania, Ligeti made it into 2001: A Space Odyssey (without earning a dime) and became reasonably well known; most other composers are not so lucky. Until figures like Ross began their advocacy, it was difficult to find these obscure composers and their even obscurer recordings and concerts.
Which is why if 20th century music has any rebound, it will, it is quite likely, owe a deep gratitude to Ross. He has never succumbed to the frank exhalations of despair or recalcitrant bourgeois snobbery typical of many other writers in the field. He has not even wasted his time calling out frauds and denouncing trends; even when he does do this, as with his modestly unkind comments about composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, he transforms the polemic dialectically into a positive remark on the field of music as a whole. His primary service has been to review and uphold musicians and composers, classical or otherwise, whom he likes, without seeming to propagandize on their behalf, whether these are obscure, like Harry Partch, neglected by the avant-garde, like Jean Sibelius, or extremely popular but also extremely subtle and pluralist in their musical sources, like Radiohead and Björk, such that they deserve the acumen of a classically-trained critic.
Writing about music, as anyone who has tried it knows, is extremely difficult, and it usually drives most writers into the safe arms of baffling angled modifiers: the parallel octaves of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto are “nimbly prismatic”; Schoenberg’s tone-color in the Gurrelieder is “lushly serendipitous”; the repetitions in Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians are “raffishly cerebral.” Ross, to his credit, tends to avoid these easy metaphorizations, working as hard as he can to convey the feel of the music. Here he is, in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, describing the terrifying end of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck:
Now comes the masterstroke. At the end of the next-to-last scene, the orchestra delivers a kind of wordless oration, which, in Berg’s own words is “a confession of the author who now steps outside the dramatic action on the stage…an appeal to humanity through its representatives, the audience.” There is a palpable break in the musical language, as Berg makes use of a piece that he wrote back in 1908 or 1909—a sketch for a Mahlerian Sonata in D minor….Dissonance stages a counterstrike: trombones deliver a stentorian “We poor people,” twelve woodwinds mass together in a twelve-note chord, and sheets of sound in the percussion replicate the terror Marie’s murder. Finally, the bass instruments pound out a rising fourth, and D minor crashes back in. All this sounds like something more than a lament for two human beings; it may be a tribute to what Thomas Mann called the “worldwide festival of death”—the Great War itself.
In nearly all of the book’s mostly rapturous reviews, critics reported a desperate need to buy piles of CDs after reading Ross’s book. This is the purest evidence of his import as a music writer: he has been so persuasive in his elaborations of the music that he has converted readers into listeners. As his reference back to Berg’s unpublished sketches indicates, the astonishing amount of research he conducted for this book lies unhidden, while he also makes unashamed recourse to easy musical terminology (“a rising fourth”). For those with only a passing interest in but little knowledge of the music, Ross is nothing if not patient and helpful: if you cannot afford the CDs or understand the terms, you can check out the “playlist” or glossary on his website.
The Rest is Noise is not, however, meant to be a book that simply and beautifully describes a number of 20th-century pieces, though it certainly achieves that much. Ross’s principal ambition is to retell the history of the 20th century, in Europe and America, from the perspective of its classical music. Sometimes, this history seems to be reflected in the music, as in Wozzeck’s apparent evocation of the First World War. More often, history is “what hurts,” as Frederic Jameson memorably put it: it interferes with composers, it drives them into pained silences or to produce music of suffering. Ross’s own “masterstroke” is to frame this intersection of history and music with passages from Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Doktor Faustus, a retelling of the Faust legend about a Schoenberg-like composer, Adrian Leverkühn, whose life and music allegorizes the growth and collapse of Nazi Germany. Accordingly, the Faustian bargains that major composers make with history resemble Leverkühn’s own. Exemplary in this regard are composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, perhaps the most tragic figure, whose gradual, reluctant accommodations to the strictures of artistic life in the Soviet Union reveal themselves in self-lacerating autobiographical string quartets, or in the sudden dissonance that abruptly tears into the otherwise triumphalist end of his socialist-realist Fifth Symphony. The structure of the book tends to rely on the genre of the New Yorker “profile”; accordingly, its narrative is inevitably biographical, and the parade of figures can occasionally feel exhausting. But Ross has a fine eye for leavening this texture with telling details: that one of the London blitzes was called “Operation Moonlight Sonata” reveals just as much about the relationship between Nazi Germany and its music as any composer portrait.
This explicit narrative goal of Ross’s book is also undergirded by the attempt to resolve a more theoretical problem: namely, the idea of musical progress or modernism. Ross’s subtitle is Listening to the Twentieth Century, but it could have borrowed from the subtitle of Pankaj Mishra’s last book, since it essentially treats the issue of “how to be modern” as a classical composer. More than the historical context of the music, what animates the book is the conflict between what was to be accepted as modern and the desire for the best of composers to avoid any stricture on their composition. Frequently, composers struggled with the birth of atonality, and to what extent maintaining the tonal, classical tradition would seem regressive in the modern world. The other, perhaps more significant but also more understated conflict was between autonomous, “high” classical forms and more popular forms, like jazz and rock and roll. The unstated but fairly obvious system of value that emerges throughout the book is one in which composers least concerned with “how to be modern,” and—most importantly—least insistent on making others into moderns, turn out to be the best.
It’s an ingenious and crucial move, classically postmodernist, and for most of the book, Ross pulls it off. On the one hand, we have composers who often come off badly for their authoritarianism: Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Milton Babbitt, and, above all, Pierre Boulez. On the other, there are the wonderful moderns, composers who do well by taking a laissez-faire attitude to the kind of sounds that enter their work: Berg, Benjamin Britten, Morton Feldman, Igor Stravinsky, Sibelius, Steve Reich, George Gershwin. Some of these composers, particularly Sibelius and Stravinsky, find themselves repeatedly clashing with the radicals’ new orthodoxy of dissonant composition, which took over Europe in the postwar period and then found refuge in the universities in the ’60s and ’70s. Both succeed, and succeed beyond their contemporaries, at maintaining their individual styles. When Stravinsky tries his hand at twelve-tone composition, Schoenberg’s classical and conservative restructuring of atonal composition along the lines of Baroque counterpoint, it seems to gratify Ross that, despite the demands of the new style, Stravinsky’s “characteristic traits and tics remained.” “Like Berg before him,” Ross writes, “Stravinsky manipulated the series in order to generate whatever material, tonal or atonal, he required. … Stravinsky’s old bopping, bouncing patterns keep churning beneath the variegated surface.” What attracts Ross is something like a postmodern sensibility in composition: something that allows diverse, even contradictory influences to pour in while remaining uncompromisingly personal.
Accordingly, if the book has one absolute villain, it is Boulez, French composer and polemicist, whose fervent desire to legislate the terms of postwar music brings out all of Ross’s reserves of mild anger and disdain. He’s not alone, of course, in hating Boulez. American composer Ned Rorem derisively calls out Boulez in nearly all of his collected diaries, from the 1960s to the present. “If Russia had Stalin and Germany had Hitler, France still has Pierre Boulez,” Rorem writes in Setting the Tone, only to revise his opinion from ostentatious to dismissive and acid. “Equating him with Stalin seems too grandiose. Boulez is the Woody Allen of Paris. He coddles a semi-informed public by spelling out ordinary ideas about extraordinary subjects. Their fans are no less flattered when Woody plays Freud for chuckles than when Boulez plays Webern for frowns.” It was Philip Glass who would come up with the most direct formulation, when he referred to the artists who populated Boulez’s 1960s “Domaine Musical” concerts in Paris as “these maniacs, these complete creeps … who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music.”
Boulez was hated because he hated, and the circle of mutual contempt that built up around him fueled most musical discussion, not to mention an impressive number of astonishing compositions, for much of the European postwar period. In articles published from the late ’40s to the early ’50s, he published takedowns of everyone in sight. First, anyone not practicing twelve-tone music: “any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS.” Then there was anyone who venerated Schoenberg. In an ostensible obituary for the great composer, from whom all of modernism was born, he concluded: “The old man revolutionized the art of harmony while leaving rhythm, structure, and form untouched. … [He displayed] the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism. … Therefore, I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke SCHOENBERG IS DEAD.” His frenzied, jabbing writing style, lashing out indiscriminately at passers-by with its pointed deployment of ALL CAPS, closely resembles the style of his early music. Much of this is sublime, though Ross, whose own generous sensibility Boulez’s offends, doesn’t care much for it. His Second Piano Sonata (1948) can sometimes sound like what would happen if a musician were attempting to play counterpoint on a piano pirouetting on one of its legs: violent, crashing chords alternate with delicate trills that verge on the comical. But Boulez would not remain the doyen of wholly determined, violent music. His Le Marteau Sans Maitre (1953) was among the most fleet-footed, astonishing pieces of its time, freely incorporating African and Balinese musical elements; in a famous article about Boulez, Ligeti spoke fondly of Le Marteau‘s “sensual, feline world.”
In these passages, and in his ensuing discussions of the Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, the center of European postwar modernism, where Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio developed as composers, Ross sometimes seems to lose his way. He points out that Michel Foucault, “the great theorist of power and sexuality, seemed almost turned on by Boulez’s music, and for a time he was the lover of Boulez’s fellow serialist [Jean] Barraqué.” Ross quotes Foucault on Boulez and his fellow twelve-tone composers: “They represented for me the first ‘tear’ in the dialectical universe in which I had lived.” This—a comment about the crumbling of Marxism’s domination over French intellectual life—is a tantalizing opportunity to talk about relationships between music and the broader intellectual life of the time, which Ross seems glad to miss. From all the accounts, not limited to the gossipy Joann Peyser biography of 1975 that is regrettably Ross’s major source, Boulez does appear to have been something of a tedious bully. But beyond his dreadfully corrosive opinions, his extraordinary music turned out to be influential far beyond France—and beyond music itself. Besides Foucault (and, it should be mentioned, Gilles Deleuze and Roland Barthes), intellectuals and poets of the Brazilian avant-garde, like Haroldo de Campos, found inspiration in Boulez’s music for their own poetry.
History happens to the composers of the book’s first half; by the second half, it seems to have left them—and Ross—hanging, with diminishing returns on the prose that makes the earlier portions such a pleasure to read. This effect isn’t entirely Ross’s fault. He still is lively in recounting the exhausting, internecine debates over the future of music that have occupied too much of the last fifty years of music discourse. But the frenzy of these discussions was more heat than light, signs not of health but declining social relevance—at least, of a certain kind of music. Inevitably, as the political relevance of these discussions diminished, the politicization grew exponentially. Composers developed an impressive number of metaphorization strategies for upholding and maligning music. “Schoenberg’s method,” wrote John Cage in 1937, “is analogous to a society in which the emphasis is on the group and the integration of the individual in the group.” Cage’s chance music, Boulez told an interviewer in 1970, “[is] fit…for the fascist type societies which leave you a coin to put in the slot.” In some cases these were honest discussions of how certain types of music could really be “crazy, creepy music”—totalitarian or utterly anarchic sounding, without moral center or compass. Mostly, however, like the great claims of “theory,” they were bourgeois expressions of unfreedom in the age of the great university, attempts for composers to justify their retreat into tenured security. This was a 20th century process from which few seemed free: it swallowed novelists, poets, and visual artists, along with musicians who did not compose for film or land conducting gigs. And that is the history that would have true explanatory power, but Ross, alas, doesn’t tell it. For that reason, the second half of The Rest is Noise has an airless quality, for which the marvelous readings of Britten’s Peter Grimes and the rise of the California avant-garde do not quite compensate. Still, there is no doubting its value: I would not soon give up the experience of reading Ross’s loving profile of Harry Partch, the gay hobo musician who composed microtonal masterpieces about graffiti on highway underpasses, or La Monte Young, whose droning, static music left clear marks on The Velvet Underground.
In his epilogue, Ross dissolves the distinction between “popular” and “classical” music to justify his general optimism about the state of the music. Think, he says, of Sufjan Stevens and his debt to Steve Reich; Radiohead’s debt to Olivier Messiaen; Björk’s to Karlheinz Stockhausen. These, among the best pop acts of our time, are also the carriers of an immense and varied musical vocabulary into the future. Classical music, always moribund and ever-dying, may yet have a second life that we have not sufficiently imagined. “I have seen the future,” Ross wrote in his 2004 essay “Listen to This,” “and it is called the Shuffle—the setting on the iPod that skips randomly from one track to another.” This might be our new way of listening, Ross suggests, one in which distinctions we once assiduously observed suddenly—finally—appear arbitrary, and the demarcations that most musicians have long left unnoticed are ghostlier than ever.
Yet the technological example of the iPod arouses the kind of pessimistic suspicions that Ross is at pains to dispel. Theodor Adorno, Frankfurt school theorist and musicologist, appears in Ross’s book as a comic sub-villain—like Don Bartolo from The Barber of Seville or Karl Marx in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, he comes off as an imbroglione, a “swindler.” A consummate interpreter made paranoid by the collapse of his Marxist hopes, he is a practitioner of “the politics of style,” demolishing Stravinsky’s “regressive” tendencies; grumbling that the American love for Sibelius is a great mistake and must be condemned; with one dialectical aphorism, like an enormous hand gesture, sweeping away Richard Strauss and Shostakovich. In The Philosophy of New Music, one of the supreme masterpieces of Marxist aesthetics, Schoenberg is upheld, only to be devastated: the terrible fluency of twelve-tone composition is a “reversal into unfreedom,” reflective of a desire for “domination over nature.”
All this is both powerful and finally somewhat silly for the ecumenical Ross. But it leaves him without recourse when a little pessimism (not to say cynicism) might be called for. For what Adorno gave us in his many writings on new music was a way of seeing history in a piece of music where it might be most absent. It was a way of trying to do what Ross is reluctant to do: to understand and define progress in the arts. Thus, Adorno saw that the totally determined serialism of postwar music reflected, in imprisoning musical method, the increasingly administered and rationalized society that produced it—which is why the music finally failed to challenge that society’s operations. One can call that “administered society” stuff a canard without losing the powerful sense that Adorno was still onto something in his methodology: it was the reactionaries who understood better than the connoisseurs that non-tonal composition was dangerous, that the terror it induced really was a signal of something awful, and that it was not to be easily accepted. This, for Adorno, was the feeling that the social order was false, that it rested on false propositions, and—he never said it, but his students, despite his best efforts, got the message—that it was to be remade. It is not the conclusion that matters here, but the attempt at an explanation. Ross divests himself of a correlate way of explaining history—at least, history that is not totalitarian or “New Deal” era history—and so we stop hearing the 20th century in the music towards the close of The Rest is Noise. Now that we are in Ross’s techno-utopian land of the iPod shuffle, where we can shift bizarrely between Lily Allen and Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s twelve-tone opera Die Soldaten, we have learned a postmodern lesson about preferences and taste, but we have lost the understanding of how music emanates its history, that history is not merely imposed on music from above, but rather it is lived through and played out, in experience, and that our music—no matter how alien and isolated it sounds—is this experience.