Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise (see my initial comments), visited Seattle to “curate” Icebreaker IV: The American Future, a Seattle concert and festival of young composers. Before the main show, he spoke about The Rest is Noise and how it’s targeted especially at those who have interest in but know little about classical music, as well as how the lives of composers were interwoven with history, society, and culture. As I wrote before, he is “telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.” Right: and it goes from the last years of what Ross calls the “marble bust” society through today, covering transformation in art and life.
Perhaps the most important thing Ross stressed was plurality: in approaches in art and music as well as how there isn’t a single path toward progress. Different composers worked in different modes, and what appeared stodgy to many critics—like Sibelus, who with Shostakovich is toward the book’s intellectual heart—became seen as more innovative, while revolutionary music like Stravinsky’s eventually became part of the dominant mainstream. The matter just behind plurality in importance how Ross sees classical music is a great 1,000 year old tradition that is still alive and evolving. Modern composers, performers, and others should realize this emphasize the emotional dimension of music and not just its intellectual dimension.
At first Ross seemed nervous, wringing his hands and shifting his weight, but as he spoke passion and confidence emerged, growing as he talked about the excitement in the classical music world. Ross said his “whole task as a writer has been to draw attention to composers,” and I would extend to the classical and other kinds of music in general. This is a particularly important task because he says classical music is underserved at the media level (sound familiar?), which no longer tracks composers. True enough, as I didn’t recognize most of the names after 1960, and the same problems plague writers. But Ross isn’t “doomy” as many are, due in part because of the aforementioned excitement.
And it’s hard not to get excited at The Rest is Noise, which he says is divided in three sections. The first is devoted to the changes in the early part of the twentieth century, with new sounds, a diversity of approaches, the rising power of pop music, and modernism all arising. The second part most explicitly discusses politics, with World War II and Communism affecting composers the world over, who struggled to survive like many others. This is where he most “use[d] music to write [… an] alternate history.” Finally, the third section, which seemed the weakest and least cohesive to me, he says is “wild” and all over the place. “You can’t write history about events that are still unfolding,” explaining why that section appealed less to me. To be sure, the third section was weak only relative to the strength of the other two, as it still surpassed most writing in general.
Then came the concert, with seven pieces by seven composers; the pieces ranged from ones for a pure quartet to others that incorporated electronic music to those that demanded a larger group to one that was described as being built around bits from Michael Jackson songs (and I enjoyed the pastiche.) Afterwards the composers spoke. They didn’t resemble the stereotype that first leaps to my mind when I think of “composer,” which bears a striking resemblance to the guys in stipple portrait on dollars. Rather, they were more akin to the hipsters I’m used to seeing at bars, reflecting the way their music ranged across modes. They answered questions akin to the one I hate most at readings. My favorite answer was glib when he said that, “I take walks till I’m ready to start,” then he hits his head against his computer, then takes more walks as he composes. Other people asked “questions” designed to show the erudition of the questioner instead of elicit information. Overall, though, it was a good session, even if I couldn’t tell to what extent the composers were trying to describe their artistic process and to what extent they blew smoke.
I keep drawing parallels between literature and music because throughout the evening these parallels were so apparent, and the language used to describe phenomena in both mediums so similar. Much of what I wrote above concerning change, styles, and influence could apply equally well to books and literature, and probably to other artistic and even scientific forms as well. The Rest is Noise is extraordinarily deep and yet malleable. This also makes it hard to define: it is about classical music but also music in general, as well as history and art. Only infrequently does one find a book that does so much while being so much fun to read. The book, like Ross’s talk, shows so much contagious enthusiasm that I can’t help catching it.