Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, December 16, 2007

[Updated and corrected below.]

As I got near the end of Alex Ross’s 540-page history of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, I grew sad, as when the end of one’s vacation at a beloved spot draws near: It is so lovely to be there that one does not want to leave. His voice is so companionable, his knowledge so broad, his ear so acute, his love so deep, his gift for storytelling so opulent -- but take one’s leave one must. The stories that began with 20th century classical music have not ended yet, but any particular story teller’s time with them must.

I became acquainted with Alex about four or five years ago through a music listserv, got to know him better through the medium of blogging, and subsequently met him very briefly in person after hearing him lecture on 20th century musical history. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I never read his column in the New Yorker until I “met” him online. Some of this book originally appeared in his regular magazine column; if you have read him there, the only stylistic surprise the book reveals –- and it is mightily impressive -- is his skill at large-scale composition. For a long time I have thought of him as the American music critic most beloved by his constituency. In my own experience, he is an unfailingly courteous and kind correspondent.

I read the book on loan from the library, riding the bus to and from work, on lunch break, late at night after everyone was in bed. I finished a few days before it was due; I couldn’t renew it because the reservation line for it was long. Since returning it I have wanted to refer to it as I’ve begun to explore music that the book hipped me to: “Now what did Alex say about Krenek?” It’s a book I will want to have around.

The night before I finished, I wrote Alex an email.

* * *

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

Subject: your book

Dear Alex,

I'm almost done, and I'm sad!

Tons to say, with a continual conversation going on with you in my head.

You are a gifted storyteller. And you have great ears. I'm especially glad that you gave so much emphasis to the dissidents from dissonance. Even though I'm not a huge fan of Sibelius or Copland (though I adore adore adore the "Fanfare for the Common Man" and love "Quiet City"), and I barely know Britten at all, their music belongs, and their relationships with changing fashions in classical music have a lot to say about the centrality of fashion to culture. I've been thinking about how Dylan and Charlie Parker *changed everything* in their respective scenes when they made their breakthroughs. The stories you tell relate to those stories.

More to say when I'm done -- suffice it to say for now that,

1. your book's going to be around for a long long time, as far as these things go;
2. you deserve the praise you've been getting;
and 3. thanks!


* * *

Alex has solved the puzzle of how to write panoramic cultural history without falling prey to over-generalization by refusing the panoramic perspective. He writes from the ground view, he keeps it personal. Many of the chapters close with the satisfying click of the end of an episode in a novel. Click, the door on this scene closes. Next scene.

The storytelling pulled me along like a novel. The deft sketches of vivid characters, and, in the book’s center, their complex public and private relationships with the political realities of their times: Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany, Aaron Copland in New Deal America, and, most compelling and haunting of all, Shostakovich in Soviet Russia. These three along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky emerge as the main characters in this story of 20th century classical composition, with long set pieces devoted to Sibelius and Britten.

Sibelius and Britten stand slightly apart from the main narrative because they were indifferent to the 20th century trends. Stravinsky’s rhythmic innovations, Schoenbergean atonality, ‘20s neoclassicism, ‘30s social realism, and post-WW2 serialism all had their followers, with many composers passing through more than one camp as trend followed trend. For several decades Schoenberg and Stravinsky played roles comparable to those played by Charlie Parker in jazz and Bob Dylan in rock as innovators and trend-setters. Indeed, like Parker’s and Dylan’s, their influence has not completely dissipated. Fascinating parallels between classical and “vernacular” music emerge from Alex’s telling of modern classical history.

* * *

The Rest Is Noise does not subscribe to the outdated theory that popular music is ephemeral while “classical,” “serious,” “concert,” “notated,” “composed,” or “art” music is for the ages. But the notion still circulates -- oddly enough, in pop music circles.

The pop milieu boasts a long, distinguished history of modesty. In 1914 Irving Berlin wrote this for an ASCAP celebration.

Popular song, you will never be missed
Once your composer has ceased to exist,
While Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven and Liszt
Live on with each generation.
Still, though you die after having your sway,
To be forgotten the very next day,
A rose lives and dies, in the very same way --
Let that be your consolation.

Berlin of course was wrong. Not only did he write two of the most ubiquitous songs in American culture, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” but hundreds of his songs and those by his contemporaries continue to be sung and played today.

Carole King, speaking retrospectively of her own pop heyday, which exploded some 50 years after Berlin’s first boom, said, “The primary purpose back then was to make money.” Berlin and King wrote for the moment, to connect with as many listeners as possible living in the right-now. There is no reason to doubt them that they had few hopes for posterity.

But this indifference to the future always bore traces of ambivalence as well. Berlin’s breakout hit, the song that made his name, included a crucial allusion to a big hit from 60 years before. Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (a/k/a “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”) of 1851 shows up in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” of 1911. Fifty-plus years after that, Brian Wilson wrote new lyrics to “Swanee River” in two different (unsuccessful) songs, and Garrison Keillor wrote new lyrics to the tune again for his 2006 fictional film A Prairie Home Companion. Sixty years from Foster to Berlin, 50 years from Berlin to Wilson, 45 years from Wilson to Keillor, and the same song resounds.

Berlin’s most-sung song today, “God Bless America,” quotes an even older song. Originally made public in 1938, “God Bless America” quotes one of the big hits of 1823, “Home, Sweet Home,” a title that became the last three words of Berlin’s song. A year after Berlin debuted his song, Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale quoted the older song again when she clicked the heels of her ruby slippers together, murmuring “there’s no place like home,” as the 1823 melody played in the film
’s underscoring. Irving and Dorothy were quoting lyrics more than 100 years old, written by someone whose name is not well-known today but whose words still are: John Howard Payne, who died in 1852. Payne and Foster’s roses held their bloom long past their authors’ lives. Indeed, a fragment from “Home Sweet Home” hit the Top 40 in 1962 as the introduction to the Shirelles’s aggressively passive wife-fantasy hit “Welcome Home Baby”; the B-side, “Mama Here Comes the Bride” (a much better song, in which the wife angrily leaves), quoted Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin.

Keeping up with fashion is part of the pop music job description. Novelty dance numbers were hot in the early 1960s when Carole King and her songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin wrote “The Locomotion.” Fifty years earlier, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” name-checked the hot style of that moment.

Dave Van Ronk gives a moving account of the shock of witnessing the birth of a new musical trend. He was the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” the king of the New York folk scene, when Bob Dylan came along and shortly dethroned him. Van Ronk:

Within a couple of years, Bobby changed the whole direction of the folk movement. The big breakthrough was when he wrote ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ because in that song he fused folk music with modernist poetry. The tune was borrowed from an old English ballad called ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. . . . [T]he overall effect was incredible. I heard him sing that for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.

About later singer-songwriters who thought they could be the “next Dylan,” Van Ronk wrote, “Yeah, sure you could. All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ -- for the first time. That was what Bobby had done, and none of the rest of us did that.”

Charlie Parker’s innovations hit people so hard that they felt compelled to document their awe. Musicians and fans recorded his improvisations in clubs. The bootlegged recordings have been commercially available for decades. The private recording equipment was heavy and the tape expensive. Parker’s bootleggers turned the machines off when his band mates soloed. Nobody else mattered.

Again and again The Rest Is Noise shows how classical music is no less trend-friendly. Schoenberg’s breakthrough to atonality inspired pupils and rivals for decades. Composers of the ‘30s would be shocked to learn -– though Schoenberg wouldn’t -– that his influence has not disappeared almost 100 years after his breakthrough. The late nineteen-teens saw a fad for jazz among French composers that ended as abruptly as it began. The Great Depression inspired composers across Europe and America to reach out to broader audiences with more tuneful music. The catastrophe of the Second World War produced revulsion for the Western tradition among European composers, and certain circles required hostility to the audience. Some still require it.

Great music in any style has happened regardless of its fashion sense. The Rest Is Noise strikes a good balance between trend-watching and maverick-celebrating. Alex makes clear that the mavericks who ignored classical music fashion, like Sibelius and Britten, paid the price of scorn from their peers. Happily for Sibelius and Britten, audiences did not care about the assessments of the trendy composers and heartily embraced their music. It is no surprise, given its focus on the intersection of music and society, that the book pays less attention to isolated mavericks like Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. Most pundits consider Ives the Top Name in American Classical (I agree), and giving Copland the lion’s share of attention over him strikes me as odd -– and good for Alex. Whomever he writes about is worth reading about -- and listening to.

The Rest Is Noise unexpectedly led me to conclude that the pop world has a healthier attitude about aesthetic trends than does jazz or classical. In pop, a musician’s relationship to trends is irrelevant: Sales will win you respect. Jazz seems to have the least healthy attitude: If you don’t fit into a particular style milieu, you aren’t playing jazz. Classical would seem to be the venue with the most freedom of all, but socially, in the 20th century, the in-fighting between style milieus could get, like, totally high school. It was a big social coup for the Schoenberg clique when Stravinsky, head of a rival clique, adopted some of Schoenberg’s style.

* * *

Because Alex is “Perhaps the least combative and doctrinaire of American classical-music critics,” in the words of critic and composer Gavin Borchert, writing in the Seattle Weekly, his choices are ungainsayable. He isn’t arguing that Britten and Sibelius are better or “more important” than Debussy or Ives or Ellington. His book says: This is music he loves, these are stories he wants to tell. If I think Debussy or Ives or Charles Mingus or Rahsaan Roland Kirk deserves the full New Yorker profile treatment (and I do), well, as other reviewers have mentioned, it is churlish to complain of omissions when what has been included is so splendid.

Alex’s generosity of spirit flags only when he deals with his precursors among popular historians of 20th-century composition. He rightly takes Constant Lambert and Virgil Thomson to task for their racism, but his criticisms of them go beyond the moral. He complains of Thomson’s resistance to some of the masterpieces of modernism as well, and he doesn’t discuss Lambert much at all. Which is perhaps as it should be. This isn’t a history of music criticism; it’s a history of music.

But despite Lambert and Thomson’s moral failings, their writings are the ones that in my experience most closely resemble Alex’s in their lucidity, wit, historical breadth, musical acuity, and generosity of spirit. And note: The pop-affiliated musicians to whom Lambert gave the most attention in his mostly wonderful (though marred by racism) book of 1933, Music Ho!, are the ones to whom Alex pays most attention as well. Seventy-four years later it’s still Gershwin and Ellington. Surely, the reader speculates, there have been vernacular musicians since with vital and complex relationships with the classical tradition. And then who comes most vividly to mind but avant-garde jazz musicians -- Ornette Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor -- none of whom could be classified as popular. As Alex is aware, the decline of contemporary jazz’s popularity mirrors the decline of contemporary classical’s. During Gershwin and Ellington’s overlapping period of popularity -- the 1930s -- contemporary classical had a far higher profile in popular culture than it has since.

Part of the reason I was sad to be winding down with the book was that I sensed a growing sadness in Alex’s writing. The Rest Is Noise is so rich regarding the first half of the century that by the time that Alex gets around to the era’s last third he’s got something like a tenth of his page count left. Which may explain why latter-day classical-minded jazz musicians get less attention than their forebears: their classical contemporaries get comparatively less attention too.

The sadness of the book’s closing even seeps into some of Alex’s calls for optimism. Near the book’s end, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is toasted for a recent concert of modern, dissonant music. Unfortunately, two of the three pieces mentioned are close to 100 years old. They’re both fantastic, but they aren’t contemporary. The Richard Strauss of Salome would not have been celebrating the modernity of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The influence of The Rite of Spring on horror and sci-fi/fantasy movie soundtracks gives it contemporary currency, but chronologically it is practically as old as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

* * *

At one point I suspected that Alex’s lack of doctrinaire argumentation might mask a doctrine of his own. He tells entertaining anecdotes of Cage’s provocative slogan, “Beethoven was wrong!” But he never explains why Cage thought Beethoven was wrong, and by making Cage seem like a goofball, he misses an interesting view of music history. [Update. See below.]

I have always taken Cage to mean that Beethoven was wrong to emphasize harmonic elaboration over other musical elements. While Alex is the better storyteller as well as morally more congenial, I find Lambert and Thomson’s approach to music history more persuasive. Lambert and Thomson, while often disagreeing intensely on other music, both center the 20th century on Debussy’s formal breakthroughs, on his overthrow of the tyranny of development, on his declaration of formal improvisation. Alex focuses more on harmony than on formal breakthroughs. In Alex’s telling, the 20th century doesn’t start with Debussy’s masterfully form-breaking La Mer or
Pelléas et Mélisande, it starts with the bold dissonances of Richard Strauss’s Salome.

But Alex doesn’t neglect Debussy. He begins the book with Strauss and pays much more attention to him than to Debussy, but he understands the magnitude of Debussy’s influence, and the reasons for it. And if Alex’s lack of argument masks a hidden argument, it ultimately doesn’t matter. He makes connections between musicians, their music, and their historical moments so resonant that my wish for a somewhat more persuasive music history fell away. And on the music itself, his enthusiasm is contagious.

Alex sometimes missteps when he considers music outside of the European and North American classical sphere. He gets subtle details of popular music history wrong, and in one instance he criticizes a Mexican composer for something a North American did a lot more, while giving nothing but praise to the North American. (The list deserves nothing more than a parenthesis, but here it is: Chuck Berry did not invent a style that Elvis popularized afterwards; most scholars believe flamenco evolved from cante jondo, not the other way around; it is anachronistic and inaccurate to describe Glenn Miller’s rhythms as be-bopping; it is incomprehensible to describe Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s use of Mexican dance rhythms in his tremendous La noche de los Mayas as “kitschy” while giving Copland a pass in similar cases.) And despite his good-heartedness, I take exception to Alex’s hope for classical music as the music that potentially contains all other musics. No. No tradition can contain another. Alex doesn’t mean to sound imperialistic, but when his pen slips and he says in an aside that by the end of the century, music was no longer a strictly Western art, it gives one pause. Music was never a strictly Western art, as he well knows and as he says elsewhere. He meant to say “classical music,” except he often tries to avoid the term. The classical habit of conflating “classical” with “music” has historically been part of its PR problem.

* * *

Where Lambert begins his 20th century with Debussy, Alex ends his history with a quote from the great French composer, a sentence fragment that describes music as the “imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.” The quote struck me because it is so close to a fairly famous line from Moby-Dick: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

My sensibility rebels against Debussy’s -- and Alex’s -- “imaginary.” Music is true! Hasn’t Alex just told us for 540 pages of music’s beauty and truth? I’m a romantic too, and I’m attracted to maplessness, to new discoveries, to the feeling of being lost, some place I may not be able to find my way out of. That is to say, symbolically, I like these feelings; actually being physically lost can be an unpleasant experience. The romantic in me agrees with Melville: Those unmapped places and sensations are not imaginary. They’re true!

They’re true because they map the human heart.

Cases from the book:

1. Aaron Copland composing the soundtrack of sonic-visual Americana, with his ballet scores Appalachian Spring and Rodeo in the 1930s, then getting scrubbed from an inaugural celebration for Eisenhower in the 1950s because of his history of leftist activism, then having his open-prairie harmonies from his ‘30s ballets influence Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign commercials in 1984. Copland’s harmonic openness struck a chord with American aspirations irrespective of the political vision that Copland or Reagan sought to connect them with.

2. The touching story of the friendship and mutual influence of Shostakovich and Britten, who recognized related emotional landscapes through each other’s music. Complex people both, with deeply private emotional repressions and masks, they saw kindred spirits in each other even though their repressions were completely unrelated. Shostakovich had made a career negotiating the changing diktats of Soviet stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions, filtering patriotic utterances through unknowably ironic masks, while Britten’s repression was sexual. He was attracted to adolescent boys, and he knew that to act on or make public his attraction would ruin him. Their music brought them into connection.

3. The Chinese composer He Luting standing up to the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s campaign to eliminate Western influence in Chinese culture. A critic targeted the composer for defending the music of Debussy. Chinese television broadcast a physically abusive interrogation of He, who refused to apologize. He shouted, “Your accusations are false!” and “Shame on you for lying!”

4. The Russian Army blaring a broadcast of Shostakovich’s rousing Leningrad Symphony at the German Army during the siege of Leningrad.

The Rest Is Noise is rich with such intense connections between people, music, and their social and political contexts. Debussy’s “imaginary” sounds escapist. The music in the book
may be many things, but it’s not that.

Curious about the context of Debussy’s “imaginary,” I looked it up. Debussy made the remark in 1901 – the century’s beginning – in a letter to composer Paul Dukas. I can see why Alex excerpted it. The full context is beyond bohemian snobbish, it’s positively misanthropic.

It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.

* * *

The Rest Is Noise
belies the quote with which it closes. It provides a map of 20th century music from the institutional European tradition -- and a dandy one. As its narrative power and musical passion and smarts swept me along, a continuing discussion ran in my head. I have focused here more on the contrary elements of the discussion, but that’s only because more often my side of the discussion ran towards, “right on!” or, “you don’t say!” or, mostly, “wow, I’ve never heard that, but I sure do want to now!”

Alex’s map does its job splendidly. It gets you traveling through the landscape, or, in this case, the soundscape. And -- the book rings true -- what a soundscape it is!

* * *

Update. Correction. Alex did explain Cage’s objection to Beethoven, which you can read about here.

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