YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The background notes from the 20th century

Critic Alex Ross says the dramatic times shaped the music, and California played a key role.

October 28, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

FEW writers can write stirringly about both Johannes Brahms and Sonic Youth. But New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, 39, has spent much of his career fighting the idea that classical music exists in an airtight room high above the rest of the culture.

Which makes his hefty new book, "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century," published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a welcome arrival. The book begins with George Gershwin arriving at the Viennese home of Alban Berg, who tries to put the uncomfortable "Rhapsody in Blue" composer at ease with, "Mr. Gershwin, music is music."

Writes Ross: "Ultimately, all music acts on its audience through the same physics of sound, shaking the air and arousing curious sensations. In the 20th century, however, musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon."

The book then drops back to move from the Austrian fin de siecle, Weimar Berlin, the America of Ives and Ellington, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Britten's Britain and the '60s avant-garde on to Minimalism, the West Coast mavericks and the rise of John Adams.

Ross tries to put the music in context with wars, politics and pop movements whenever he can, and to highlight moments of unexpected fusions.

We spoke to Ross -- who grew up a rock-free child in Washington, D.C., later programmed a 20th century classical show on the Harvard radio station and was hired by the New York Times as a stringer in 1992 -- by phone from his Manhattan apartment.

Why does classical music from the last 100 or so years -- unlike the visual art from the same period -- remain what you call "this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture"?

It's had a struggle to find an audience, especially compared to other art forms. The first blasts of Modernism in painting and literature and so on all caused scandals: Audiences rebelled at first, but they quickly caught on, and Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for $100 million a canvas. The esoteric has become popular in these other art forms, and that hasn't really happened in classical music.

Even Francis Bacon's paintings have been domesticated, while a lot of contemporary and experimental music continues to shock people.

What happens when you put a bunch of people in a room and ask them to make sense, collectively, over a fixed span time, of something like Schoenberg's "Five Pieces for Orchestra"? It's just not the same as putting an abstract painting in a gallery and asking gallery-goers to make sense of it. A concert is a crowd experience, and crowds have minds of their own.

And dissonance simply has a stronger effect on the psyche than abstraction in painting or stream of consciousness in literature, because sound is a physical phenomenon, it shakes the air and enters your body. I don't think composers have always appreciated how acute the effect of dissonance can be.

But these effects are very familiar in other contexts: What may cause bewilderment in the concert hall makes perfect sense in the movie theater behind a horror film or science-fiction film, in movies that have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Once you find the right psychological context for these sounds, they no longer have the same alienating effect. And of course Stanley Kubrick helped himself to some of the finest works of Ligeti in "2001," "The Shining" and "Eyes Wide Shut."

I think these challenging 20th century works are seeping slowly into the repertory. It takes 50 or 100 years for the repertory to accept the new.

Given the unease a lot of people feel, what drew you to the 20th century as a subject?

For me, it contained some of the most thrilling stories in music history and an unparalleled cast of characters for a writer who loves not just music but cultural and political history as well.

My aim in this book is to use history to shine a light on the music, to show where the music came from, what is was up against, what it was reacting to, and thereby to make some of the choices composers make more clear. Once you see the music in the context of the incredibly dramatic historical circumstances, it begins to make a lot more sense.

Is it fair to say that 19th century music is essentially narrative and 20th century music is trying to do something else, or to reflect the fragmented narratives we get in Modernist literature?

A lot of 19th century music is about "the adventures of a theme." You recognize a theme, and then you start to hear its transformation; a second theme comes along, they start to interact, and you hear a story unfolding. Twentieth century music, a lot of it is about music as landscape, music as texture, sonic events one after the other. In a lot of it, rhythm comes into play, as opposed to melody.

Los Angeles Times Articles