Alex Ross—The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century

Alex Ross—The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century

Alex Ross

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Alex Ross, critic for The New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century discusses the challenges of writing about recent musical history, especially when your intended audience ranges from expert musicologists to interested non-specialists.

READ exclusive The Rest is Noise bonus content.

LISTEN to the 45-minute interview.

Interview Transcript:

Trevor Hunter: You’re highly visible as a music critic, but for those who aren’t as familiar with the “Alex Ross Story,” how did you come be interested in this music, and what drove you write this book?

Alex Ross: Well, I grew up as really a sort of full-on classical music geek. I would say I listened exclusively to music from about 1750 to 1890, starting with Mozart and maybe a little bit of Bach, and ending with Brahms. That was where I was until I had a wonderful piano teacher who started introducing me to 20th-century music. His name was Denning Barnes, and he was a composer as well as a pianist. I remember the day he put the Berg piano sonata in front of me, and it was a door opening to another world with those rising intervals. From there I really very rapidly consumed the 20th-century music decade by decade, especially when I got to college. We had a huge LP library at my college radio station and so I went through Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok, and then I got into the post-war avant garde: Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Ligeti. I sort of gave myself an education while preparing programs for my radio show. One week it was Morton Feldman, another week it was Ligeti. I played the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes on the air, which I think was something of an achievement—possibly the North American radio premiere, I don’t know. I wrote to Ligeti and he helped me find the LP of the piece. Unfortunately I later lost the letter that he wrote to me, which is a cause for regret. That was my story in terms of really falling in love with every stage of 20th-century music. Maybe not every single aspect of it—you sort of have your ins and outs with various composers.

When I started writing criticism, it was very important for me to concentrate on 20th-century music and contemporary music. I was also a composer up until age 18, and I could never finish any of my pieces. I would have a promising beginning to a string quartet, and then I just could never think of what came next, which is obviously an important aspect of being a composer—not just having one idea but knowing where it goes. I try to look at music from the composer’s point of view, and that’s really driven my criticism from the beginning. And so when the opportunity arose to write a book, I thought I had no choice but to write about the 20th century; it’s such an extraordinary body of work that is relatively little known, especially in terms of your average educated person who can tell a Picasso from a Jackson Pollack and has read widely in contemporary literature and knows the great books of the 20th century but will freeze up when you mention Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The thing is, they know the music, they know the sound of the music—they’ve been exposed to it in one form or another on film soundtracks, in concerts, or on CDs—but they don’t necessarily know where this music came from, and how it all fits together, and how one composer affects another or reacts to another. The most important thing I wanted to do with the book was to introduce people to this extraordinary, violent, chaotic, beautiful, sublime world of 20th-century music. I’m hoping as well that people who are already well-versed in the subject will find things to like in the book, and hopefully I’ve introduced a few novelties of my own to the already pretty compendious literature of 20th-century music commentary. But first and foremost, I wanted this to be a big, sprawling, hopefully absorbing cultural history that will draw people into the music world using the 20th century itself, the history itself, in a way to make the composer comprehensible.

TH: As mentioned, the name of the book is The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. Where did that title come from?

AR: The title came to me years and years ago, and again it just seemed self-evident that I wanted to use that title for the book. It’s playing off, “The rest is silence,” Hamlet’s last words. People always have this sense that classical music ends sometime around 1900, dies out and dwindles into silence around that time, and that it is an art of the past. So calling the book The Rest Is Noise is sort of an ironic play on that. Also, confronting the perception many people have that 20th-century music is noise on first acquaintance, and it just sounds like pure sonic bedlam (and some of it intentionally is such). Yet there’s a whole aspect to it which is the opposite; I think some of the most purely beautiful music was written in the 20th century. So again, sort of ironically playing on that impression. I was also thinking of what John Cage said about any noise becoming beautiful if you listen to it intently enough, and the sense that one person’s noise is another person’s music and vice versa. These categories are very changeable, and if you go deep enough into this world then these noisy sounds can become very beautiful on second or third acquaintance.

TH: And the subtitle? I believe you even recently had a blog post about the difference between “Listening to the 20th Century” versus “Listening to the Music of the 20th Century.”

AR: That’s trying to get across this idea that it’s not just a book about music, it is about the century itself. I was also a part-time history major and literature major in college. I love history; I love big sweeping cultural histories especially. I wanted this book to be one of those. There’s a great deal of space in this book given not only to the composers, but to politicians, dictators, cultural functionaries, artists in other media, this whole surrounding landscape, and the cultural context in which the composers worked. I wanted to bring all that to life as vividly as possible; to talk about Winnaretta Singer, the Princess de Polignac, who hovered behind so much music of Paris in the 1920s, or Anatol Lunacharsky in the early years of the Soviet Union. Obviously, Stalin and Hitler play very large roles in the book. The chapter on music in Nazi Germany is as much about Hitler’s musical taste and trying to make sense of that as it is about Richard Strauss and Pfitzner and the composers of the period. And going on through the ’50s and ’60s, the Cold War and its effect on composers and how they reacted to it. So, with Listening to the 20th Century, I’m trying to get across that idea that this is a history of the 20th century through music.

TH: Throughout the book, the discussion of the differences arising in 20th-century music is often framed in terms of conflict—tonal vs. atonal, popular vs. intellectual. What made you focus on those dichotomies?

AR: Actually, a lot of the time I think I was trying to get past the dichotomies. I think the discussion in any given period often focused on these little debates, wars even, that broke out between composers of one camp, a sort of progressive or avant-garde camp often oriented toward more dissonant musical material versus those who are considered nostalgic, neo-romantic, conservative, and so on. So I laid all that out because I wanted to be true to how the music was being perceived by the actors on the scene at any given time. But then I wanted to push past that, and I think as a listener I’ve become very excited by composers who transcend those categories and seem to be in both worlds at once. Alban Berg comes to mind as someone who was able to integrate aspects of these seemingly irreconcilable camps, and Messiaen also, as someone who just rose above that conflict in a way. And yet, of course, I also admire those who were very idealistic and true to whatever so-called side of the conflict they were on. The purity of Schoenberg’s vision throughout his career is something to be admired because it was absolutely sincere; he had no choice but to write what he did. A lot of this vocabulary of conflict and combat comes from composers defending themselves against attack, and their own very deep-seated beliefs. I think in retrospect some of this very heated debated seems more amusing than anything else now, but of course it was taken very seriously at the time, so I wanted to do justice to it, and try to get at what was really at stake in some of these conflicts.

TH: Now, you stated in the acknowledgements that John Adams served not only as a subject for the book, but also as an inspiration for its style, and I was quite curious about that.

AR: I admire his music so much because it synthesizes many different aspects of the 20th-century musical story, and in this book I wanted to do the same thing, and to integrate and find compromises and a sort of pragmatic solution to a lot of these conflicts and stylistic issues that have arisen in the 20th century. But beyond that, I think I was just simply thinking of the day when I first came across an LP of Harmonielehre, sometime in college, and a little later Nixon in China, and I was so excited by that music. I just sort of said, “Oh, God!” when I heard the opening chords of Harmonielehre. It was a kind of music that I had somehow vaguely been hearing in my mind but couldn’t conceive of anyone writing down. It’s one of those uncanny experiences that you have. As much as anything, I think that led me to become a critic, because I felt the presence of someone writing music right now that just felt so incredibly important to me that I had to talk about it. So that was a big factor in my turning toward music criticism after college—my experience of his great early post-minimalist pieces.

TH: Speaking of Adams, you end the book with a discussion of Nixon in China. You begin the book with a discussion of Strauss’ Salome. A big centerpiece for the book is Benjamin Britten and Peter Grimes. Many have said that opera has made the transition into the post-romantic musical world with more difficulty than other forms. What made you use opera as a signpost for much of your book?

AR: It’s true; I kind of noticed that after it happened. It struck me that, wow, there’s a lot of opera in this book. It begins with Salome, there’s a big section devoted to Wozzeck; and actually both Berg operas I spend quite a bit of time on. And then Porgy and Bess and Lady MacBeth. Then it does come to a conclusion with Nixon in China, which I thought was neat because it allowed me, sneakily in a way, to have some of the major characters of the book take their last bows, because Adams quotes Salome in that opera. Of course there are allusions to Sibelius, and I worked in mentions of Schoenberg and Shostakovich as well, so it comes full circle in a way.

First of all for a book like this, which I’m hoping will reach a wide audience, describing an opera is a little easier than describing a purely instrumental piece because you can describe the plot, you can describe how the music reacts to turns of the plot, and it can be a bit more vivid to the uninitiated reader. But more than that, the operatic premieres and great events just sort of demanded to be talked about; I mean, Lady MacBeth caused the great explosion in Shostakovich’s career. Salome brought about this amazing scene that I describe at the very beginning of the book, where Strauss is conducting, Mahler is there, Puccini is there, Schoenberg came with six of his pupils, a kind of a class field trip for the second Viennese school. And there is this possibility that Hitler, age 17, made the trip to see it—he definitely was in Vienna the week before, and he later told Strauss’ son that he had gone to see Salome in Gratz. And whether he did or whether he said he did for some reason is unknown. But it’s an extraordinary congregation of a lot of the main characters from the first part of my book. So, opera just gave me these big set pieces that I could organize the book around. But you’re right. Shostakovich symphonies are performed all the time, but Lady MacBeth is still something of a rarity. Obviously, the Britten operas aren’t performed quite as often as they should be, although they’re certainly making headway. And then we have all this later 20th-century opera repertory that is hardly touched. The first John Adams opera has yet to be performed at the Met, which is an astonishing state of affairs. But, maybe just for that reason, it is important to emphasize the incredible importance of the 20th-century opera repertory.

TH: Your book follows a fairly linear timeline. The one exception that really jumped out at me was the discussion of Henry Cowell. That came near the end of the book, even after the discussion of most of John Cage’s music. Why did you choose to discuss Cowell in that late a chapter?

AR: There were some times where I reorganized the chronology a little bit. For example, in the fourth chapter, which talks about American music from Ives to Ellington, I don’t talk about Copland at all. Obviously that chapter focuses a lot on the period of the ’20s, and Copland was already a very big presence then. But I had this other chapter coming up on music in the New Deal period, in the ’30s and ’40s, and I just wanted to have all of the Copland material in one place, so I shifted him there.

I moved Cowell and the early 20th-century West Coast innovators to that very late chapter because there was a story that I wanted to tell about American music. In a way, I redo the whole 20th-century story from a different perspective, from an exclusively American perspective in that chapter. I start with Charles Seeger, and the lessons he gave to Cowell, and then from Cowell I go on to Lou Harrison and the early John Cage. Then I have Morton Feldman in there, who you might have expected to find in an earlier chapter. There is this very alternative maverick tradition, purely American, often West Coast-based vision of music, and I was talking about certain characteristics—such as music based on a drone or a repeating pattern, repetition and gradual change, and obviously going through LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Reich, and Glass, and building up toward minimalism. But it’s not just talking about that music as a prelude to minimalism, it’s about this chain of connections that goes all the way from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, and eventually shoots off into pop music, when Reich and Glass have their impact on Brian Eno and David Bowie, and when the Velvet Underground, one of the great rock bands in history, grows directly out of LaMonte Young’s ensemble. I just had so much fun writing this, actually. It was the most personally delightful chapter for me to work on because I felt that I was just riding this circuitous narrative from one end of the century to another. So that was why I positioned Cowell there, as one of the progenitors of this alternative, very non-European mode of writing music in which very often you find repetition of figures, as opposed to the constant variation and sustained development of figures that is so often prized in the European tradition, as well as in a lot of East Coast American music. So I think that’s the big difference between East and West Coast American Music. It could be exaggerated, and there are obviously many exceptions, but that story jumped out at me as one I wanted to tell.

TH: Your comments in the preface seem to indicate that you subscribe to a view of history as sort of a wave—in your words, an “unbroken continuum.” Yet your book necessarily deals with some larger than life individuals doing extraordinary and revolutionary things, which has tinges of the Great Man Theory instead.

AR: I think I tried to do both at once, without sounding wishy-washy about it. On the one hand, I wanted to talk about the big processes that flow through history—this idea that music seemed to often have a mind of its own—and then these great social and political forces that were obviously at work, driving musical change, and technological change. I track technological change throughout the book and show how that demanded new types of music at different stages of history. So there’s all that, and yet at the same time there is a lot of biography in the book and evocation of particular personalities. I might be guilty of a little “Great Man”-type mythologizing and romanticizing at times, but for me just both approaches are necessary. I can’t subscribe exclusively to one or the other, and I hope I’ve given as complete a picture as possible by taking these different tactics. In a way, the minimalism chapter is not so much about personalities as it is about a certain musical process that just keeps bubbling up in different places, and composers seize on it and run with it, whereas there are two chapters in particular which are almost exclusively biographical, chapters about Sibelius and Benjamin Britten. They demanded a different approach because they don’t really seem to fit into any particular larger school of 20th-century music; they stand a little bit outside of the main progressive currents of their period, and yet for me they’re hugely important. So somehow to do justice to them you have to take a more biographical and psychological approach. I also used them symbolically, representatively. There could have been chapters about many other composers, treating them the same way: Carl Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Martinu, and Frank Martin. They’re all these somewhat lonely, off-by-themselves figures who so often get left out of the big 20th-century narrative. By insisting on Sibelius and Britten in that way, I was making a statement about a whole lot of other composers, and it killed me not to talk about so many of the others as much, whose music I really love.

There’s a really long list of composers who I wanted to write about, or did write about and ended up cutting because the book was at one point almost twice as long as it is now. Again, thinking of that reader who’s coming to this music for the first time, I was very conscious of not overwhelming him or her with too many names, too many works. Also, in dealing with composers such as Shostakovich, I can’t describe every one of his fifteen symphonies. I pick out several and leave the rest, hopefully to be discovered sometime later. A lot of the struggle, in terms of writing this book and getting it under control, was figuring out which composers and which works I could use to advance the story, to cover a certain period or certain scene adequately, and get to the next plane in the narrative, so I ended up making these pragmatic choices and not necessarily focusing on the works that I think are exclusively the greatest works in 20th-century history.

TH: Now, chronicling a century that is essentially still warm in its grave has its challenges. The further back you go, the more events are historically fleshed out. Approximately 65 to 70 percent of the book deals with music before 1945; roughly the same percentage of the recommended listening in the back does the same. Do you have plans to release subsequent editions of this book over time as the history of the recent past becomes clearer, or is the story you wanted to tell already encompassed in what you’ve covered?

AR: Well, this is something that I was conscious of as I went along that, yeah, the history of the early 20th century is a bit more nailed down, and you have perspective on it. And also the stories, in a way, are easier to tell. I mean, there’s such an explosion of music, after 1945 especially, and an explosion of different styles of music that it becomes quite difficult to get it all under control. And I struggled a lot with later chapters of the book and especially with the final chapter, where I attempt in relatively brief space to talk about what has happened in music after 1980 or so. And it’s really kind of hopeless. I just decided at a certain point, yeah, you can’t write history about events that are still unfolding and all I could do was to give what I call an aerial overview; a sort of rapid tour of some of the main trends that we see in music of the very late 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Just give readers things to seize on and to check out and to discover because music is going to such extremes, whether of extreme complexity, extreme dissonance, or extreme tonality in the form of minimalism. People can have very violent reactions for it or against it, yet somehow in the early 20th century everything seems more consolidated. And maybe eventually over time the later 20th century will settle down in the same way and it will be very obvious—this is what we need to talk about and this is what we can ignore—but for right now it is a struggle to find a perspective on it.

Maybe at a certain point I could expand the later chapters of the book, especially the final chapter and give a more complete account of music of the last 20 years of the 20th century. But there’s only so much space and I thought the most important thing was to explain some of the fundamentals of 20th-century music vocabulary and especially focusing on Schoenberg and Stravinsky and, for me, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius and some others who are also very important. Then, in a way, once readers have been led into that world, they can go on from there and make their own discoveries. But it was just so hard to squeeze all of this between the covers of a book which I just didn’t want to be one of these things that you kind of start to experience wrist pain after a while and that feels like a brick in your backpack if you’re walking around with it. I wanted it to be a book that was a book and not a tome. So that was when I had to make some sacrifices.

TH: You’re certainly well versed in what’s called “old media” now, writing for the New Yorker, The New York Times, and now this book. But you also have a fairly prominent blog that many of our listeners will certainly know. How have you noticed that this internet phenomenon has affected both your work as a critic and how it might have affected the course of the book? It seemed to me at least, reading over the last couple of years, that you were working out some issues on the blog.

AR: I’ve had to devise a different style for the web, and I think blogs just demand a different kind of voice from print journalism. In a way, I feel I have a slightly different persona, whether it’s writing a book, writing a magazine article, or writing on the blog. Each medium demands a slightly different style and I’ve enjoyed coming up with this blogging voice, which is sort of more whimsical. You need to write brief posts—long form writing just doesn’t work as well for me on the internet—and aphorisms and quick cuts and rapid reactions to things. I don’t feel that that has bled over into my other writing, but it’s certainly affected how I view the musical world. I’ve discovered so much music on the internet; so many composers I’ve come to know by happening on their websites and checking out a few sound samples. Going on from there, reading composers’ blogs and performers’ blogs has led me into their world and let me see things from their perspective in a way that I couldn’t even get if I were sitting down and interviewing them. And then, of course, there’s this whole amazing phenomenon of being able to listen to opening night of the Bayreuth Festival on streaming audio or a premiere at the London Proms and so on and so on. The internet has made the contemporary music scene very global, and we can be aware of what’s going on musically in terms of all these composers. It becomes overwhelming quickly if you make any attempt to keep up with it. But for a critic, you know, it’s all unfiltered; there’s not a small group of publishers and performing arts organizations making choices about what you’re going to get to hear. You can make your own discoveries and sort of get around all that machinery. So that’s been a huge plus for me as a critic.

And in terms of developing the narrative of the book as I was writing the blog, I mean, it’s great that if a question arose that I couldn’t easily find the answer to, I would sometimes just ask it on the blog and see what I got, and I’ve gotten just amazing responses – emails from people all over. And you know, the amazing thing that’s been happening with the Schoenberg center where so much of Schoenberg’s life—his manuscripts, his correspondence—is there online. So I spent a few days doing research at the Schoenberg Center a few years ago, but I’ve been able to go back and continue to double check things and discover new documents, and that’s a brilliant decision on the part of the Schoenberg “people”, if you want to call them that, the family. Just to open all the doors. Here’s this composer who’s considered mysterious, inaccessible, difficult, hostile to wider audiences, and just welcome everyone in and sort of release the controls on access to this material. It’s quite surprising, or maybe not, that of all the major composers of the 20th century, Schoenberg, by far, is the one who has the most colossal web presence. I think that’s a great irony of musical history.

TH: Now you mentioned how the internet has allowed you access to other composers who you might not have otherwise heard about. After everything that you chronicled in your book, all the events and ideological battles that transpired, what interests you about today’s composers?

AR: Well, I like to think that I’m not favoring one particular school of thought or style over another. Increasingly as time goes by, I try to be pragmatic. Pragmatism is the philosophy of being in the world that makes the most sense to me and that means not being ideological, looking past ideological conflicts and making decisions, making judgments on a case-by-case basis. So hopefully I have no pre-set qualifications for music that’s going to interest me. There’s certain trends that do seem to be especially lively at the moment, and one of them definitely is young composers who’ve grown up with different aspects of pop music and are reacting to that and incorporating that, either on the surface of their music or sort of more down below. And I think minimalism and the consequences of minimalism are still playing out in a lot of ways and young composers rediscovering Reich and Glass and so on, on their own terms, and combining that with other aspects of musical vocabulary that are of interest to them. But then you have very young composers who’ve fallen in love with Ferneyhough and Lachenmann and are writing music in reaction to that but which may also have an improvisatory element to it or even rock. And so it’s just these surprising combinations, unexpected combinations that young composers are coming up with right now, which I think are really exciting to witness.

TH: How do you view your role and your purpose as a critic?

AR: Well, I’ve never identified very strongly with the classic, sort of old-school conception of the critic as this utterly objective, hard bitten observer of the musical scene who delivers judgments from on high. That’s not a voice that has a lot of appeal to me. When I was writing for the New York Times I was constantly troubled by the immediate overnight impact that the reviews could have, negative or positive, and that kind of power aspect to the critic’s role isn’t something that interests me so much. I find it more comfortable to think of myself as the color commentator rather than a play-by-play announcer, in terms of what’s going on in the musical scene and chiming in a little after the New York Times and other newspapers. Giving a second view, a third view on things—that’s a role I feel comfortable with. And in the New Yorker I also have this great gift of having more space and more time to develop my reactions to things so I don’t have to rush them to print; I can sort of mull it over and let a premiere sink in. I can go to the second performance, the third performance of a new opera, and I may end up changing my mind somewhat from my initial reaction. That just feels ideal for me.

I think after I’d been at the New Yorker for a few years, I started discovering this other role that I could have in terms of doing a little bit of education, a little bit of music appreciation. Hopefully not in the Walter Damrosch sing-along-to-Schubert-melodies sense of music appreciation, but something a little more up-to-date and sophisticated. Because the New Yorker has this great audience of people who read the magazine no matter what the individual articles are about and they trust that if it’s in the New Yorker, there’s got to be something vaguely interesting about it.

That’s obviously a lot to live up to. I have an obligation to be vaguely interesting, but it’s a great opportunity for classical music which is so often cordoned off in its own sort of weird little ghetto and separate from the rest of culture. Here I am in the mix, on the menu, alongside all the other cultural forms, and people will sit down and read a big piece about Morton Feldman, say, just because, well, it’s in the New Yorker. And that’s such a great opportunity. So, a lot of the time I am explaining some basic concepts as well as doing a little more in-depth analysis for those who already know the subject. And that’s exactly what the book is, too—trying to talk to both of those audiences at once. And there’s such a big gap. People say to me all the time, people who read the New Yorker say, well, I enjoy reading your articles but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And on the other side, if you were to approach a group of musicologist, they might say, well, I enjoy reading his articles but of course it’s all very simplistic and watered down for our tastes. So there’s this kind of big canyon between the connoisseurs and the experts and the whole huge mass of people who don’t know a whole lot about classical music but who are otherwise very culturally engaged and educated and so on. So as much as I can, I go back and forth between those two distinct audiences and try somehow to talk to them both at once—both in my magazine articles and in my book, too.

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