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The ‘Mash of Myriad Sounds’

For several weeks this spring, a sculptural installation by Richard Serra—five slender, soaring steel monoliths, fifty-six feet high and seventy-five tons each, spaced evenly apart and differently tilted just so—occupied the emptied nave of the Grand Palais in Paris. The work was called Promenade. Large cranes were required to install it, and viewers were expected to traverse the expanse, a length of more than a football field. The subtle ways each slab played off against the others, the shifting effects of sunlight through the great, paned ceiling, shadows moving about—all this unfolded during the process of walking around, over time. For Serra, art that occupies large spaces enlists temporal effects, nudging sculpture a little bit toward film or music.

One evening a piano was brought into the exhibition so that Philip Glass could present a recital. Hundreds of Parisians lined up on the street outside beforehand, then filed in and sat cross-legged on the concrete floor. Some forty or so years ago, Glass earned money working as Serra’s assistant; and along with Steve Reich and Chuck Close helped Serra prop up so-called Prop pieces, those lead houses of cards that are antecedents to Serra’s current art. It was common then that Glass would have an opportunity to perform his own music (this was before concert promoters saw fit to engage him, long before he became, as he is now, a classical music celebrity): he would play in the galleries and museums where Serra had shows.

So the Paris event was a throwback and reunion. Glass’s music spilled out, in the usual waves of clattering or murmuring arpeggios that, after lengthy, lulling periods, abruptly shifted, by changing key or tempo, alerting listeners, whose concentration might have drifted, to refocus. The mostly young audience responded at the end as if Glass were a pop star. Writing in The New Yorker last year, the music critic Alex Ross described “a familiar sequence of emotions” that one may experience while listening to Glass:

More often than not, you start with a disappointed sense of déjà vu: a rapid onset of churning arpeggios and chugging minor-key progressions dashes any hope that the composer may have struck off in a startling new direction. At times, it seems as though he had launched Microsoft Arpeggio on a computer and gone off to have tea with, say, Richard Gere. But marvellous things can happen when the composer’s attention is fully engaged.

In Paris, Glass was, if not note- perfect, engaged, and the music dovetailed with Serra’s remarkable sculpture, which, around the corner of a distant slab, suddenly revealed some fresh, surprising aspect—the presence of another slab, which had previously been blocked from view, or the triangular space formed by the angles of two further slabs coinciding in space—and in the context of such a spare but monumental art, these small incidents, like Glass’s key and tempo shifts, acquired gravity.

In The Rest Is Noise, his first book, reaching for the apt metaphor to describe Glass and several other similar composers, Ross adopts this very notion of moving through space. “Minimalist vistas,” he writes,

are filtered through new ways of seeing and hearing that relate to the technology of speed. They evoke the experience of driving in a car across empty desert, the layered repetitions in the music mirroring the changes that the eye perceives—road signs flashing by, a mountain range shifting on the horizon, a pedal point of asphalt underneath.

In Ross’s book, by far the liveliest and smartest popular introduction yet written to a century of diverse music, history winds through the pages like those highway signs and mountains. We linger over some; others whiz by.

For a dozen years or so Ross has been the catholic-minded critic for The New Yorker, writing about new music without a chip on his shoulder or a tone of condescension and not as a defensive apologist for a supposedly embattled culture—but instead fluently, as if taking for granted that new music were on its own terms every bit as relevant and vital as contemporary art or literature.

His prose is notable in a discipline that frets too much about its obsolescence. Classical music is no longer taught to every middle-class child in school and at home; but millions of people, more than ever, exploring myriad niche interests from early music to new music, listen to it in proliferating numbers of concert halls and opera houses and at festivals and on iPods and compact disks around the globe. Ross recently reported on the music boom in China, exploring not just the official and sometimes deadening academies but the indie-rock scene while meditating on the volatile admixture of Chinese and Western musical influences. It was a typical example of open-eared curiosity, at the end of which Ross snuck into a concert in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing:

A half-hour performance ensued, with a full complement of Chinese instruments, and players dressed in vividly colored courtly garb. It was a sound at once rigid and brilliant, precise in attack and vibrant in delivery. It was the most remarkable musical experience of my trip. At the time, I didn’t quite know what I was hearing, but I later surmised that I had witnessed a re-creation of zhonghe shaoyue, the music that resounded at the temple while the emperor made sacrifices to Heaven. Confucius, in the Analects, calls it yayue—“elegant music”—and laments that the people are discarding it in favor of vernacular tunes. Now it is a ghost in a phantom museum.

He ended the article:

I walked for another hour in the temple park, thrilled to have had an aural glimpse of what I took to be the true music of China. A little later, I heard a wistful melody coming from an unseen bamboo flute, and went in search of its source, hoping for another revelation. After making my way through a maze of pine trees, I found a man of great age and haunted visage, playing the theme from “The Godfather.”

And so the world turns out, as Ross argues, to be a mash of myriad sounds and full of surprises, if we are prepared to listen for them.

Ross writes at a time when the atonal revolution has given way to a pluralism that rejects the high modernist concept of “progress” in art. As Ross writes, too much that was valuable and popular but not, formally speaking, new or radical in the twentieth century (Puccini, Copland, Sibelius, for starters) ended up not being taken as seriously as it deserved to be.

After all, music is not science, never mind if certain composers around midcentury liked to dress up like physicists and imagine themselves conducting experiments in sound in laboratories in Paris or Princeton. We have revived many of the musical ideas that had been discarded. There is, in fact, almost an A-B-A shape—a classic sonata form—to the century as Ross recounts it, beginning with Strauss and Mahler, moving through Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Boulez and Stockhausen, and arriving at symphonic-scaled, historically omnivorous works by Osvaldo Golijov and operas by Steve Reich, who once said a model for composers in the late century should be John Coltrane. “The music just comes out,” as Reich put it. “There’s no argument. There it is.” Exactly.

Jazz, of course, became a haven for blacks whom the white classical world shunned, and Ross dwells on musicians like Duke Ellington, who wrote a forty-five-minute swing symphony, Black, Brown, and Beige, but didn’t care about the approval of avant-garde composers. Ross lavishes attention throughout The Rest Is Noise on those classical composers who, likewise, were not doctrinaire but idiosyncratic, and not infrequently were buffeted by musical and political ideologues. Strauss and Shostakovich are two of his tragic heroes, Sibelius another. A New Yorker piece he once wrote becomes a chapter-long encomium to Britten (Ross makes a special point of stressing the contributions not just of blacks but also gays to music). Readers may quibble with his emphases, but Ives, Bartók, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Ligeti, John Cage, Morton Feldman—diverse individualists, they are all treated with sympathy.

It matters that in many of these cases Ross can construct biographical narratives around the music. The central chapters, in a sense the heart of the book, explore music under Hitler, FDR, and Stalin, raising among other tricky topics Hitler’s deep passion for music, Stalin’s cultural sophistication, and the efforts both tyrants made on behalf of classical music.

The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality,” Ross points out. Just so. Webern, he notes, idolized Hitler although the Nazis banned his atonal music. Shostakovich was Stalin’s favorite composer but he suffered notorious humiliation under the dictator’s thumb. Historians who have tried to reduce music’s meaning to certain political or social ideas have ignored music’s own essential ambiguity.

How then to hear this music? Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, first performed in 1934, was received at the time in Moscow as an exemplary model of Soviet culture, but Ross prefers to interpret it now as a “darker kind of monument to Stalin’s world.” Perhaps it is. During the 1950s at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the Soviet bloc’s answer to the West’s avant-garde hothouse in Darmstadt, Germany, Krzysztof Penderecki’s 8´37—“an affair of shrieking cluster chords, sputtering streams of pizzicato, siren-like glissandos, and other Xenakis-like sounds,” as Ross writes—was embraced by Communist officials who should have loathed its atonality, after someone proposed the work be retitled Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener,” as Ross acknowledges. “It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves.” That’s as good a definition as any for modern art in general.

In Bayreuth this summer a new production of Parsifal (in the tiresome modern German tradition, rather overwrought but not uninteresting) tried to reimagine the work as a troubled metaphor for modern German history, turning convalescing Grail Knights into wounded World War I German soldiers, while Wehrmacht troops and Nazi banners were intended to suggest the corrupting sorcery of messianic leaders who promise redemption and national glory. As it happens, toward the end of World War II, Hitler began to send wounded soldiers to Bayreuth, Ross writes, “so they could have their own Wagner epiphanies.” At Auschwitz, meanwhile, a female SS officer hit on the idea of founding a women’s orchestra out of fifty or so amateur and professional players among the prisoners, and Mahler’s niece, Alma Rosé, became its director. Ross borrows the details of Rosé’s story from a biography by Richard Newman and Karen Kirtley, Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz (2000). The orchestra, as he recounts, played various marches, Strauss waltzes, the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, and Schumann’s Träumerei, because Josef Mengele loved it. These Jewish musicians gained a special status at the camp, through their association with the orchestra and Rosé, for whom music provided an escape into another world. A Polish cellist remembered Rosé becoming furious once at a wrong note; later the cellist decided that “this seemingly futile insistence on perfection had saved her from insanity.”

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