Alex Ross's history of 20th-century music covers an impressively vast terrain. But its preference for "popular" over "difficult" modernism means that it fails to grapple with the artistic battles of the periodby Stephen Everson / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (4th Estate, £20)
In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, provides what he describes as an account of “the 20th century heard through its music.” Quite what that should amount to is not obvious, at least to me, but certainly Ross manifests a great knowledge, and understanding, of 20th-century music. He is a writer, and a listener, of wide-ranging sympathies, and the terrain covered in the book is vast. Given its scope, it is no mean achievement that the book has any shape at all. He quite reasonably eschews any ambition to be comprehensive—”certain careers stand in for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor”—but one is still often uncertain of his motivation for choosing particular careers or for selecting particular pieces as “key.” The result is that it is not always clear whether the works Ross talks about are chosen on grounds of pure musical interest, their importance in the history of 20th-century music or because of their cultural or political significance.
Copland, Britten, Shostakovich, Strauss, Sibelius and the American minimalists receive a great deal of attention, while Bartók, Ravel (extraordinarily relegated to the category of a folk realist) and Webern get relatively little. It may be that Ross thinks that Sibelius, to whose work he devotes a whole chapter, and Philip Glass are more interesting composers than Bartók and Webern: an argument for that view, even if not convincing, would have been of interest. But no such argument is given, and the reader must infer what he can from the vagaries of Ross’s decisions about which composers and works he is going to discuss at any length.
Perhaps to talk of the “vagaries” of Ross’s choices is unfair, for in fact they seem to reflect a deeper bias that is never quite made explicit. He says in his preface that he stands opposed to an approach to the history of 20th-century music that looks for progress in its “heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoisie.” He has no truck with a taxonomy that distinguishes between works that have something new to say and those that don’t, finding that the latter “often happen to be those that have found a broader public.” In his book, he says, the “intellectual” and the “popular” repertories are “merged”: “no language is considered intrinsically more modern than any other.” As a statement of principle, this is reasonable, but what is missing is a sense of why anyone should have objected to it. It is fairly clear, I think, that Ross’s own tendency is to admire popular as opposed to difficult modernism— Sibelius and Copland over Schoenberg and Boulez—and that he takes exception to those who would write off the former’s products as uninteresting, sentimental or meretricious. But what he doesn’t tell us is why anyone should have thought, for instance, that at the start of the 20th century it had become impossible to write tonal music that was other than sentimental or meretricious. Such a view may be wrong, but it is not simply arbitrary, and it would be easy to get the impression from The Rest is Noise that any doubts about the value or seriousness of Strauss or Shostakovich (pictured, above right, as a Leningrad fireman from the cover of Time, July 1942) could only be manifestations of defects of character or the pursuit of intellectual chic. When he reports the appalled reaction of Schoenberg, Hindemith and Bartók, among others, to the American premiere of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony in 1942, he says that “almost all seem to have experienced a mass attack of envy and resentment,” but this is cheap without any consideration of why they might genuinely have thought the work an artistic failure (as many still do).
When Ross does engage with compositional and ideological pol-emics, he seems to think that they can be little more than attention-seeking. Adorno’s attack on tonal composition is written off as “sociological cant,” while Boulez’s attacks on other composers are put down to being the “rhetoric of taste.” But taste is not just a matter of inarticulate preference, and if Boulez’s attacks on Schoenberg or Cage were rhetorical, they were also argumentative, which is to say they offered arguments. Even if those arguments were misguided, Ross would have served his readers better by engaging with them than by giving the impression that there was nothing to argue about.
The Rest is Noise has managed to make me feel more ungrateful than any book for a long time. There is so much in it that is good, and so much of the discussion of particular works is likely to make any reader want to go off and listen to them for themselves. If it does encourage more people to explore, in Ross’s words, their “curiosity for this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture,” it will be a work of cultural importance. But if one wants a clear understanding of why there was a problem about how to write music in the 20th century and why the debate about this could become so vituperative, it would be better to come to Ross’s book by way of, for instance, Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music, which shows that a successful defence of a “popular” modern idiom requires argument as well as history.