(Legitimately) free music: The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I

Amazon is currently giving away The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I, which caught my attention because I’ve liked Glass since really hearing him for the first time last year during a University of Arizona dance showcase when some of the students used “Metamorphosis.”

I’m listening to the “sampler” now, which has more variation in style than a complete album for obvious reasons. While some transitions between songs verge on jarring, but the album still seems worth downloading.

(Hat tip Crooked Timber.)

Alex Ross in Seattle

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.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Finding a book that lives up to expectations and ecstatic reviews is too rare, as many books don’t. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an exception, 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.

Many of his Ross’s descriptions about musical culture could as much be about literature as music; in Weimar Republic of Germany, he writes: “every violent act or image seems to foreshadow the catastrophe to come. But it is too easy to write the story of German culture from 1918 to 1933 as the prelude to the next chapter.” Elsewhere, the same point is made about modernism, about audience acceptance, about difficulty, and about politics. One point in particular can be said about literature, and it’s a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno: “[…] modernism can bring forth its own kind of kitsch—a melodrama of difficulty that easily degenerates into a sort of superannuated adolescent angst.” That’s especially true if you can stretch modernistic tendencies of the ones Adorno describes out to today, as A Reader’s Manifesto attacks exactly this idea.

The critical acclaim I mentioned is real: see, for example, Steven Johnson and Maud Newton’s excerpt. I think The Rest is Noise inspires praise because it is learned but not pedantic, historical but not dull, even-handed in its descriptions of musical stylistic and political warfare, and, above all devoted to music itself, rather than to numbing ideology. In an early section, Ross writes about Richard Strauss’ Guntram, the hero who, at the end of the opera, leaves his order, his beloved, and “the Christian God.” Strauss’ mentor was alarmed, but Ross describes why Strauss wrote the opera as he did: “Guntram’s order […] had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art. This was Wagner’s mission, too, but for Strauss it was a utopian scheme that contained ‘the seeds of death in itself.'” The theme of extremes goes on toward the middle of the book, when composers accused each other of fascist tendencies in each others’ music, and by the end Ross shows examples of modern critics who berate pop or classical music for pop’s supposed emptiness or classical’s supposed beauty. But if Ross has a main thesis it is that music is music, regardless of labels or dogma.

Throughout The Rest is Noise, Ross almost shudders at the divisiveness in all its manifestations, from the beginning when he writes that “Fin-de-siecle Vienna offers the depressing spectacle of artists and audiences washing their hands of each other, giving up on the dream of common ground,” to the masterful first sentence of the epilogue, “Extremes become their opposites in time.” Instead Ross unifies common themes and idea while still being able to judge, making a strong case that in music, as with all art, ceaseless miscegenation strengthens rather than weakening the end product.

EDIT: Alex Ross visited Seattle, which I wrote about here.

The New York Philharmonic consorts with the enemy

As long as I’ve hit music once, I might as well again: Terry Teachout wrote an excellent column on The New York Philharmonic’s decision to play in Pyongyang, North Korea:

For three days earlier, Zarin Mehta and Paul Guenther, the president and chairman of the Philharmonic, had shared a platform with Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, and announced that America’s oldest orchestra would be playing in Pyongyang next February. It horrified me — no other word is strong enough — to see them sitting next to a smirking representative of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of a brutally totalitarian state in whose Soviet-style prison camps 150,000 political prisoners are currently doing slave labor.

This column is particularly salient because I’m going to post about The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy shortly, and if Hitler has a modern heir he is Kim Jong Il. Camp 22 in North Korea is a modern descendent of Hitler’s “work” camps.

EDIT: The promised post is here.

%d bloggers like this: