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the rest is noise

27 december 2021

Alex Ross's entertaining and informative history of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, employs a noisy technique. The book is made up of dozens of tiny vignettes about critically-esteemed figures in Western classical music, each contributing a little bleat to the overall cacophony.

While one's overall impression might be that there were no simple harmonies or nice songs in highbrow music after the year 1900, Ross's main point is that this music is very diverse. If you want something you can sing, hum, or tap your feet to, there are many options. If you want Schoenberg's Wind Quintet, there's that too.

The very first Amazon review of The Rest is Noise says "If you want to read about Xenakis, Stockhausen, Berio, Kagel, Varese, etc. this isn't the book for you. In fact, the author devotes a whole chapter to Benjamin Britten!" And that is true; the figures most celebrated in The Rest is Noise are Britten, and Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, and Olivier Messiaen. But Ross devotes as much space to Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Berio as he does to any other composer not among those big six.

And why the heck not devote (as Ross does) as much to Gershwin, or Leonard Bernstein, or Miles Davis, or Duke Ellington, or Richard Strauss? Familiar music is familiar because people like it. No less an avant-gardist than Pierre Boulez, when asked why so few post-WW2 compositions entered the repertory, had to admit that "Perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener" (571).

The Rest is Noise is centrally a guide to "listening." Though the original 2007 supplementary files have perhaps succumbed to link-rot, the vast field of 20th-century composition is now available effortlessly via YouTube or Spotify. Unless you are a devoted omnivore of modernist and postmodernist music, you will find new things to hear in Ross's catalogue. Even if you are, there are items you probably haven't heard in a while and can stand to be reminded about.

Ross's brief critical comments on this parade of music usually center on harmony. I frankly can't hear most of what he talks about. To take opera, which I know best, there are stark differences among, say, Mozart, Wagner, and Berg which are obvious even to listeners like me who can't tell one chord from another. Those harmonic differences constitute the progress from Classical to Romantic to Modernist music. Actually hearing them in any detail, however, requires training not just of perception but of memory. Ross will note the clever return of a chord after many bars or sometimes many minutes, and glean great joy from it; but unless you're literally attuned to what's going on, you are not going to find it perceptible as a discrete experience.

Instead, I think the changes in harmony in music history, for most of us amateur listeners, remain impressions: impressions of elegant balance yielding to troubled contrasts yielding to aural mayhem. Behind this progress is an exacting science. The diatonic scale, basically the white keys on a piano, is susceptible of immense complication, especially if you transpose the starting note of your scale up or down and thus involve some of the black keys as well. By the end of the 19th century, the resources of that diatonic scale seemed to have been exhausted. Like modernist poets and novelists who expanded the verbal resources of their languages, or painters and sculptors who transgressed conventions of realism and then of representation altogether, modernist composers sought out unheard-of ways to write for traditional instruments.

Hence twelve-tone composition, which treats the black keys and white keys equally, or modal composition which makes use of scales other than the standard ones, or abandonment of tonality altogether. And after tonality was abandoned, things like conventional rhythms, time signatures, sonata form, repetition, even planning what note would be sounded next, or using age-old tuning principles – everything became game for innovation in the long anti-traditional tradition that leads from Debussy to Schoenberg to Webern, Messiaen, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, and Luciano Berio.

Of course, lots of composers resisted progress or tried to claw it back. Not only did popular music resist the advent of formless noise, but composers in classical modes continually returned to basic chords, songs you could sing, melodies you might remember. Stravinsky, the most identifiable of the early rebels to a mass audience, had a long middle phase where he wrote intelligible "neo-classical" music that did consider the listener; and he drew the contempt of some contemporaries for doing so (before yielding to twelve-tone influences later on). Weill, Copland, Britten, Bernstein, and others became truly popular by writing music that people somehow wanted to hear. But to an academic establishment that valued originality above all else, their work seemed increasingly reactionary.

Much of this controversy was academic even in its day and now seems pointless. Once music gets sufficiently old, who cares how innovative it was at the moment of its composition? The key thing will continue to be whether the music carries affective power. Traditionally constructed music and innovative music are on an even playing field there, at least for listeners who keep open ears. A piece in a standard form may seem trite or perfect; a piece in no form at all may be absorbing, or just irritating.

Much of the film music one hears in the 2020s, for instance, is at the cutting edge of experimental discord. Anything surreal or horrifying on screen – more and more, anything the least dramatic – is likelier to be accompanied, these days, by music in the mode of Xenakis or Berio than by Romantic strings-up swells that recall Korngold. Yet in his own day, Korngold was at the cutting edge of modernist music, and Hollywood leaned heavily on his skills to fuel the action movies of the 1930s.

So the newer composers certainly retain the power to move people, or at least to frighten and unsettle them; and that is much of what music can hope to do. Ross doesn't quite formulate it this way, but classical composition seems to have reached its ne plus ultra in the works that Boulez and Cage produced after the second world war. By abandoning not just conventional tonality but even control over what was going to happen next (as in Cage's aleatory compositions that were set truly by random processes), these composers achieved complete originality, and also a cacophony that nobody wanted to listen to. The pendulum had to swing back.

And my own untutored sense is that it swings back anyway when one tries to listen to any post-1900 music, and some of what came before as well. Composers like Schoenberg and Webern tried to abandon the ground rules and to write without constraint, or under new and baffling constraints like twelve-tone rules. But when you listen to a twelve-tone composition, unless you've spent years studying those rules, you hear harmonies that creep back in, simply because Western instruments are tuned to produce only a certain range of notes. You expect things to happen next, and then as in all music they do or they don't; the sudden interval between two notes or the juxtaposition of two phrases or rhythms produces an inexplicable affect that is irreducible to rules.

Meanwhile, of course, not many people care. Despite the fact that people consume more postmodern music, via the movies, than they realize, nobody's desperately checking Spotify to see when the next piece by Arvo Pärt is going to drop. People listen to hip-hop and K-Pop and country and Bollywood and reggaeton, and maybe sometimes to showtunes or emo or bedroom rock or Handel's Messiah. Classical composition has rarely connected to a truly wide gamut of listeners, even during the early years of radio when, as Ross explains, classical fare seemed to be a way for network executives to demonstrate that they had impeccable taste.

Classical composers are often fans of jazz (itself only intermittently of wide popularity) and consequently convinced that they should be able to connect to popular tastes. One of the keener anecdotes in The Rest is Noise is about twelve-tone composer Stefan Wolpe declaiming in his Greenwich Village apartment that composers must write for the man in the street – and his student Morton Feldman looking out the window at that moment and realizing that the man passing by in the street was literally Jackson Pollock (528). Classical composers, for a long time now, seem to have created work mainly for one another, like any other group of academics. But once they write that music, it leaves their control. Some day, some tone-deaf clown like me is going to be sitting writing about them, with their music tunneling into his head through a pair of earbuds. You never know what element in all that noise is going to pierce through.

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the twentieth century. 2007. New York: Picador [Farrar], 2008.