Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an ambitious yet immensely readable account of classical music in the twentieth century. The book is making a dent in Europe: I've met people who are reading TRIN (in English) in Frankfurt, Ljubljana, and Paris. Unlike many writers on music, Ross — who is the New Yorker's music critic and blogger – assumes no musical knowledge on the reader's part; there's no notation, and unfamiliar musical terms are explained.
The book follows a chronological sequence – the first half begins at the turn of the century and takes us to World War II, the second half picks up the story after that cataclysm, and brings us all the way to the present day. Predictably, the first half unfolds mainly in Europe. We begin with Mahler and Strauss' chromatic experiements, and move to Vienna, where the Second Viennese School begins hacking away the edifice of conventional Western tonality. Then it's off to Paris in the 1920s, where Les Six mix jazz and Brazilian music into their orchestral suites, and oddballs such as Erik Satie Dadaize the concert hall and salon, calling on industrial noise and typewriter chatter, and inventing genres such as "furniture music." In the nineteen-thirties, politics accelerates its invasion of the concert halls. The Nazis clutch the German Romantic tradition to their foul, philistine breasts, while left-wing composers such as Kurt Weill and Stefan Wolpe search for a working-class-friendly musical idiom. This goal also obsessed the Soviet musical establishment, where the authorities sought to exploit Russia's vibrant musical culture while extinguishing the bacillus of "bourgeois formalism."
World War II is obviously a caesura. Avant-gardists who had already established a reputation – such as Wolpe, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky — emigrated to the U.S., establishing themselves in universities or living from commissions from American orchestras and patrons of the arts. Other composers, such as Hindemith, Webern, and Strauss, remained in Nazi Germany, reaching variously uncomfortable and embarrassing accommodations with the cultural authorities. Ross is particularly good at teasing out the complexities of music policy under the National Socialist dictatorship. The Nazis were eager to exploit the cachet that attached to the German musical tradition, so many surprisingly avant-garde works were tolerated by the authorities – provided they were composed by Germans and didn't contain too many "non-Aryan" elements such as the saxophone.
After World War II, the American and European musical paths began to diverge. European composers denounced the classical tradition as a useless fraud, and began radical experiments with cluster-chords, graphical notation, and electronic music. Boulez consolidates his position as the high priest and cultural commissar of the radical avant-garde, brutally snubbing composers whom he regards as insufficiently politically correct. Although Ross praises Boulez's elegant, astringent compositions (in particular, Le Marteau sans Maitre), he doesn't hide his contempt for the Frenchman's arrogant priggishness. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ross traces how the European innovation of total serialism (atonal composition based on a twelve-tone "row" of musical notes) established itself in American universities and composition classes. American-style twelve-tone purists such as Milton Babbitt and Eliott Carter took atonal methods to new, knotty extremes, openly acknowledging that their compositions would be understood only by a select few.
However, Ross is eager to combat the myth of total domination of the American landscape by pocket-protector-wearing, crew-cut serialist mathematician-composers. He treats the serial school with respect, but his prose only begins to shine when he comes to the radicals and drop-outs — people like Charles Ives, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, LaMonte Young, and John Cage, who integrated everything from chance procedures to stuff scribbled on railway embankments to electronic drones into their music. The same is true of his treatment of the European avant-garde. Ross is captivated by the playful outsiders, such as Gyorgy Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, and the protean German genuis-freak Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose eerie electronic tape-loop piece Gesaenge der Junglinge might well be the most influential piece of "classical" music composed after World War II.
No matter what sort of music Ross describing, he brings the same epigrammatic flair to the task. Among dozens of arresting examples: a movement of a Sibelius symphony imperceptibly slows down, as if a "foreign body were exerting gravitational force on the music," Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ends with a "morbid spasm." At the end of the book, Ross assesses the contemporary classical scene and finds it in surprisingly good shape — more open to outside influences than one might expect. However, the situation in Germany is rather glum: "much contemporary music in Austria and Germany seems constricted in emotional range — trapped behind the modernist plate-glass window of Adorno's 'Grand Hotel Abyss.'" I'm not sure this is entirely fair to the contemporary German scene, which also boasts versatile figures such as Wolfgang Rihm and even the elegant minimalist Hans Otte (g), a gentle rebel against the atonal orthodoxy of the musical establishment. Nevertheless, there's no question that the German scene is still heavily influenced by composers such as strident leftist Helmut Lachenmann, who says his music is about "rigidly constructed denial."
TRIN is unbalanced at points: its long discussions of Britten and Messiaen, as insightful as they are, focus too much on these figures, and give short shrift to their post-World War II countrymen, such as Michael Tippett or Henri Dutilleux. But these are minor flaws in a book that otherwise distinguishes itself by its open-mindedness and generosity. Ross has little time for those who enforce musical borders — such as the Soviet cultural bureaucracy, or snobs such as Boulez, Adorno, and Virgil Thompson, who constructed elaborate (though ever-shifting) codes of musical othodoxy and mercilessly insulted dissenters. He remains neutral on the tonal / atonal divide, quoting with approval Steve Reich's observation that American composers, unlike their European counterparts felt freer to reclaim tonality and rhythm in a modern idiom – since they didn't feel a need to make music reflecting the abyss of despair and cynicism opened by World War II. But throughout the book, Ross never gives the slightest comfort to philistines who reject non-tonal music out of hand. The following statement captures the philosophy — and the strength — of this delightful book : "Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves."