Thursday interlude: Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise

When I asked Alex Ross if I could excerpt the epilogue (below) of his eloquent and persuasive The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, he surprised me by saying it was the section he reworked the most. The conclusion follows so perfectly from the history and arguments that precede it, I imagined him sitting down and dashing the finale off in an afternoon. But of course, this is what good writers do: they go over their arguments until the effort doesn’t show.

If you’d like to win a copy of The Rest is Noise, email me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com between now and 11:59 p.m. EST with the words “Alex Ross” in the subject line. All entries will be assigned numbers based on the order received, and a randomizer will choose the winner. A.H. Wessel of Miami wins the copy.

Extremes become their opposites in time. Schoenberg’s scandal-making chords, totems of the Viennese artist in revolt against bourgeois society, seep into Hollywood thrillers and postwar jazz. The supercompact twelve-tone material of Webern’s Piano Variations mutates over a generation or two into La Monte Young’s Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. Morton Feldman’s indeterminate notation leads circuitously to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Steve Reich’s gradual process infiltrates chart-topping albums by the bands Talking Heads and U2. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of musical experience, even if composers try to barricade themselves against the outer world or to control the reception of their work. Music history is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe, a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and continuous.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands. They are seeking the middle group between the life of the mind and the noise of the street. Likewise, some of the liveliest reactions to twentieth-century and contemporary classical music have come from the pop arena, roughly defined. The microtonal tunings of Sonic Youth, the opulent harmonic designs of Radiohead, the fractured, fast-shifting time signatures of math rock and intelligent dance music, the elegaic orchestral arrangments that underpin songs by Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom: all these carry on the long-running conversation between classical and popular traditions.

Björk is a modern pop artist deeply affected by the twentieth-century classical repertory that she absorbed in music school — Stockhausen’s electronic pieces, the organ music of Messiaen, the spiritual minimalism of Arvo Pärt. If you were to listen blind to Björk’s “An Echo, A Stain,” in which the singer declaims fragmentary melodies against a soft cluster of choral voices, and then move on to Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle Ayre, where pulsating dance beats underpin multi-ethnic songs of Moorish Spain, you might conclude that Björk’s was the classical composition and Golijov’s was something else. One possible destination for twenty-first-century music is a final “great fusion”: intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers speaking more or less the same language.

Sterner spirits will undoubtedly continue to insist on fundamental differences in musical vocabulary, attaching themselves to the venerable orchestral and operatic traditions of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras or the now equally venerable practices of twentieth-century modernism. Already in the first years of the new century composers have produced works of monumental character that invite comparison to the symphonies of Mahler and the operas of Strauss. Thomas Adés’s The Tempest, first heard at Covent Garden in 2004, shows that a composer can still write a grand opera of ornate design and airy power in an atomizing digital age. The following year saw the premiere of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, an opera about the testing of the first atomic bomb. Holding his lyricism in reserve, Adams marshals a ghoulish army of twentieth-century styles to summon the awe and dread of the atomic morning. Georg Friedrich Haas’s sixty-five-minute ensemblie piece in vain may mark a new departure in Austro-German music, joining spectral harmony to a vast Brucknerian structure.

If twenty-first-century composition appears to have a split personality — sometimes intent on embracing everything, sometimes longing to be lost to the world — its ambivalence is nothing new. The debate over the merits of engagement and withdrawal has gone on for centuries. In the fourteenth century, Ars Nova composers engendered controversy by inserting secular tunes into the Mass Ordinary. Around 1600, Monteverdi’s forcefully melodic style sounded crude and libertine to adherents of rule-bound Renaissance polyphony. In nineteenth-century Vienna, the extroverted brilliance of Rossini’s comic operas was judged against the inward enigmas of Beethoven’s late quartets. Composition only gains power from failing to decide the eternal dispute. In a decentered culture, it has the chance to play a kind of godfather role, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past.

Composers may never match their popular counterparts in instant impact, but, in the freedom of their solitude, they can communicate experiences of singular intensity. Unfolding large forms, engaging the complex forces, traversing the spectrum from noise to silence, they show the way to what Claude Debussy once called the “imaginary country, that’s to say one that can’t be found on the map.”


Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to my free newsletter, Ancestor Trouble.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.