The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $30.00 (to be published in paper by Picador in October)
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 …