Oct 07

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross  ?????

This book was a joy to read, in that I have a great enjoyment of classical music. Ross provides a deep insight into what has happened to modern classical music, by providing a historical commentary on the twentieth century development of classical music. The story starts with the struggles between the differing styles of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He then delves into the effects of the New Viennese school (Schoenberg, etc.), the development of Stravinsky and a counter to atonality, early modern American music, such as Ives, etc., Sibelius, and the post-WWI German scene. A second part delves into music in the Soviet Union 1933-1945, American music, including Copland, and music at the end of Hitler’s Germany. The third part, from 1945 to 1999, discusses the development of the Avant-Garde and a rebellion against all tonality, indeed, all formality in music, including the very beat and structure of music from the time of the middle ages. Various movements, including that of Benjamin Britten, Messiaen, Ligeti, and others continuing to rebel against the rebellers, were described. Finally, the minimalists and final composers of the end of the twentieth century are noted. What I appreciated about Ross was his ability to go beyond the discussion of the method of music, in order to discuss the media and message of music. He freely admits that the music scene changed in part because composers no longer had a message, no longer had anything to say, and no longer saw a point to music. Leading among these was the heavy influence of John Cage in the post-WWII years. Thus, it is surprising that all forms of art, including painting, sculpture, literature, as well as music have followed similar routes in deconstruction with loss of any legitimate message to convey. So, we are left in a perplexing situation, where music is sometimes sold as the sounds of somebody hacking a table apart with an axe, or a locomotive rolling down the tracks, or sounds of nature, or the audience shuffling their chairs, or human voices degraded by electronic means to the point of no longer perceiving the word or even the recognition of humanness. In deed, in the despair, and destruction of music from its highest form as found in JS Bach and others.  This does not mean that all twentieth century music is bad, and I have an appreciation for some of the music that has been written in the last 75-100 years. Yet, the awareness of the underlying philosophy, and personal character of the composers, was more informative as the loss of moral, spiritual, ethical, or personal value of both the composer and their music, is noted. This leads to a discussion of the title of this book, which is itself ambiguous. A “rest” in music is a pause where no sound is made. To the modern composer, a rest may actually be noise. Ross never defines noise, but sometimes suggests that some of modern music may be noise. So, just has time has weeded away the dross of most classical composers, time may again weed away much of the dross of our current noise composers.

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