Suck It Up

I haven’t blogged about Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise simply because I hate being one of a crowd, and if someone else is saying the things I would say, I have little incentive to say them myself. But I find myself rather delighted by the mini-controversy of Alex getting carped at by a couple of European critics on British radio, as detailed at Sequenza 21 (you can get a link there if you want to hear the original radio program, I found it difficult to operate). That the European critics’ arguments are so pathetically, blusteringly weak is the surest sign yet of the strength of Alex’s book.

One of them finds it unfathomable that Copland gets more pages of the book than Debussy and Ravel put together. Hmmm… well, let’s see, Debussy lived from 1862 to 1918, Ravel from 1875 to 1937, and Copland from 1900 to 1990, and if your project is to chart the rising and falling course of modernism after Strauss’s Salomé (1905) up to the end of the century, it looks reasonable to me that Copland put a lot more of his productive years into that era than… well, than Debussy and Ravel put together. (For that matter, the kneejerk assumption that either Debussy or Ravel had more impact on the direction of music than Copland strikes me as old-fashioned and in need of its own defense at this point.) Another complains because Ralph Vaughan Williams is not presented as a major figure. To each his own. Another considers that Alex’s bleak assessment of post-Stockhausen German music is flatly contradicted by the liveliness of the current scene in Berlin.

Well, I do hear a lot of good things about Berlin over the past several years, partly because a thousand American musicians seem to be over there. But the context of Alex’s discussion was German music of the 1980s and ’90s, of which he has this to say (redundant, because I know you’ve already read it):

…the emergence of the new Germany as the dominant player in the European Union failed to distract the country’s composers from their wary brooding over the past; indeed, Germans and Austrians seemed more conscious than ever before of the “danger of resembling tonality,” as Schoenberg once put it. Sixty year after the Wagner-loving Hitler killed himself in Berlin, pundits could still be heard declaring that clear-cut repetition of material or a nonironic use of triads betrayed a fascist mentality…. [T]he mantle of greatness fell on Helmut Lachenmann, who has said, “My music has been concerned… with the exclusion of what appears to me as listening expectations performed by society.” One analyst approvingly notes that Lachenmann’s work is “uncontaminated” by the world around it….

…[M]uch contemporary music in Austria and Germany seems constricted in emotional range… The great German tradition, with all its grandeurs and sorrows, is cordoned off, like a crime scene under investigation.

Upon first reading the book, I had written to Alex and singled out this passage for praise. Not only does the description perfecly capture my impression of German composing culture in the period 1980-2000 – more significantly, it jives exactly with what I’ve been told about that scene by young German and Dutch composers who have left or avoided the scene to escape it. If you hold up a mirror to a people and they say, “Don’t make me look like that,” the only response possible is, “Then don’t look like that.” I do get a sense that things have been changing rapidly in Germany and Austria in the last several years, but the 21st Century is not the subject of Ross’s book. As commonly noted, it says “Twentieth Century” right on the cover, and its European critics have had to attack by charging him with having unfairly omitted the 19th and 21st.

One point brought up in the blogosphere in Ross’s defense is that The Rest Is Noise is a narrative, not a music history text. As someone who has argued for the primacy of subjective narrative in musicology, I see this as something more than a defense. Were I to teach a general 20th-century course, I could easily imagine using The Rest Is Noise as my textbook. It would give me a second subjectivity to use as a foil to my own, like having another professor in the classroom to argue points with, rather than duplicate my own idiosyncratic views. Plus, and not unrelatedly, it’s so readable that the students would actually read it and remember things. For similar reasons I would have loved to use Carl Dahlhaus’s wonderful 19th-Century Music in classes as an intelligently revisionist history, but Dahlhaus is over my students’ heads; he assumes the reader already knows the history he is about to refurbish. The Rest Is Noise does not have that pedagogical liability. It would be a mistake for musicologists to dismiss The Rest Is Noise on account of its frank subjectivity of viewpoint, and I don’t get the impression that American musicologists are flirting with that mistake.

It would likewise be silly, I think, or at least premature, to take this handful of logic-challenged critics as representative of European reaction in general. The show’s host, after all, praises the book highly after the others have vented their spleen. But it’s curious to see European musicians now in the position that Americans have occupied for a century, as the ones who feel marginalized and left out in the classical music dialogue. Their horror that a mere American has wrested the steering wheel of classical-music history out of their hands is palpable. It makes me want to go back and review several generations’ worth of European music books that condescended to American composers, including the recent British compendium I once wrote here about that included the blithe statement,

“It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that in terms of musical impact, and in the reflection of the wider human condition and the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day, none of the American composers has yet matched their European counterparts.”

Poor Brits and Germans – they’re beginning to see what it feels like.


  1. says

    Sure, there have been important 20th century composers from Europe. But they’ve largely been subjects of other narratives. I mean, I love Vaughn-Williams and Delius as much as the next person, but do they really merit much inclusion in a book that should necessarily focus on composers who truly disrupted the status quo?

    A number of earlier American composers (Macdowell, for example) emulated the European musical fashions of their times. What is more noteworthy are folks like Partch, Ives, Young, Feldman and others who, while trained in the European aesthetic, did something very unique, very different and truly very American.

    BTW, on another note, while I appreciate the interest in getting rid of blog spam, this captcha stuff is a real pain in the ass. I’m now on my 9th attempt to submit this comment since it isn’t accepting what I’m typing. For whatever reason, this particular system makes it harder for us old folks to read the words correctly, and their audio option is not much better.
    KG replies: As for your last paragraph, David, I’ve been having the same problem with posting to Sequenza 21. Strange.

  2. Jonathan Mayhew says

    How and where does cultural nationalism come into play here? How important is the sense of being an American composer, or of NOT being European? How much weight can be put on those old Emersonian ideas?
    KG replies: Well, it’s a rather rhetorical question, right? I think of Alex as being more Europe-oriented than I am, so I was a little surprised at the charges of American bias. In retrospect I can see why Europeans would find the book biased, though I think the specific reasons given on that radio show were unutterably lame. It seems to me that Alex was trying to deal with the fact that much of the influence in classical music now runs eastward across the Atlantic rather than the traditional westward, and of course a lot of European taste-makers wouldn’t want to hear that. That recognition itself strikes me as purely objective. Is it possible to be so objective that one’s views aren’t in the least filtered by one’s nationality? I doubt it, but you gather as many facts as you can get and be as honest as you can.

  3. Eduardo Farias says

    I’ve been meaning to write about this auto sufficiente attitudes of the german speaking cultural region. I’ve been living in Vienna for the past 5 years, and I never heard a single work of Feldman or Copland or any of the living american composer , with the exeption of an “opera” by Adams (The tree of Life). But the absence is not only of american names, they have never heard of Tveitt, or Leifs. Even the season modern music Wien Modern, is confined to the austro-german, with some surprises like Ligetti,

  4. Richard LeComte says

    I did notice that Ross barely mentions Vaughn Williams, but it bothered me not a bit, precisely because I am a Vaughn Williams fan. I read to discover things I don’t know, and there is an abundance of such facts and opinions in “The Rest is Noise.” I needed to learn more about Messiaen than Vaughn Williams. After all, he doesn’t much address Richard Rodgers of Stephen Sondheim, either, but his take on Bernstein is cogent. You can’t fit everything in. The book, like Simon Schama’s “History of Britain” series, isn’t a comprehensive textbook but a journey built around major themes.

  5. Martin Walker says

    I would like to remark that I was introduced to Feldman in Frankfurt am Main in the mid-80s, before there were any recordings easily available, by the circa 4 hour For Philip Guston; the violin concerto was also played there around that time. I’ve also had an out of body experience in the Hessian Radio with a 1 1/2 hour piece by La Monte Young – etc etc. Speaking of German composers, you yourself have praised Clarence Barlow (whose remarkable, one might say post-Nancarrow variations on Op.111 were issued on HatArt records), and Lachenmann’s work is mesmerising in concert, particularly the recent Concertini. I find all this continentalist sniping pretty silly. I grew up in post-war Britain, where the BBC played The Unanswered Question (just one example)and changed my view of what music can be. Back in the 50s and 60s, Copland’s music was very present, at least on record. And ever heard of a great music critic called Wilfred Mellers and his writings on American music? By the way, all the British critics I have read have raved about Alex Ross’s book. – As far as Vienna is concerned, to comment on another reader’s comment: well, you know, the Viennese are notorious for their resistance to anything new or foreign, and they are not typical of the German-speaking area.
    KG replies: Well, Clarence Barlow hasn’t lived in Germany for a long time, has he? As I mentioned, most of the complaints I’ve heard about the German music scene have come not from Americans, who don’t know it that well, but from Dutch and other European composers, including German composers who got out. Next time I talk to them I’ll mention you find all this pretty silly.
    I also said it would be silly to take those two critics as representative of European reaction in general. And I find it incredibly silly, for want of a less mild word, that I spend so much time editing these comments to defend myself from refutations of things I never said – a point not directed only at you but at about ten of the last 20 comments I’ve gotten.