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.”

Rosé succumbed to botulism, in 1944. This was despite the attempts of Mengele himself to save her. Such is the power of music. Or that’s one way to interpret the story. A year later, Hitler was in his bunker readying him self for suicide. Ross writes: “There is no evidence that the drug-addled Führer was thinking about Wagner or listening to music in the last days and hours of his life.” But that may not be true. The German historian Joachim Fest, in Inside Hitler’s Bunker, recounts how, to break the oppressive stillness of the last hours, and despite rules against it, people began to dance in the bunker’s canteen: “Boisterous music came from the loudspeakers, penetrating to the farthest corners of the underground labyrinth,” according to Fest. So Hitler may not have died without music ringing in his ears. In both cases, Rosé’s and Hitler’s, music was linked to a psychic and physical liberation, which speaks to Ross’s larger point. Even in a century when composers often seemed to turn up their noses at the public, music remained indispensable to life.

Stockhausen once said that Schoenberg’s great achievement “was to claim freedom for composers: freedom from the prevailing taste of society and its media; freedom for music to evolve without interference.” He added:

Here was a composer who made it clear to society that he would not allow himself to be kicked about like Mozart who was kicked in the backside by a court official of the Archbishop of Salzburg when he was eight days late returning from a vacation in Vienna.

But freed from the obligation to make music that other people understood or cared about, much less enjoyed, avant-garde composers in the twentieth century still made up their own rules and codes of behavior. Acceptance at avant-garde showplaces like Darmstadt came to require a degree of conformity in its way as oppressive and condescending as the court of Salzburg in Mozart’s day. “Everything had to be stylized and made abstract,” an exasperated Hans Werner Henze once observed in his memoirs.

Music regarded as a glass-bead-game, a fossil of life…. Any encounter with the listeners that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist…. As Adorno decreed, the job of a composer was to write music that would repel, shock, and be the vehicle for “unmitigated cruelty.”

A leitmotif in Ross’s book, and perhaps its most original contribution, is how certain musicians got themselves into and then, as he writes, “looked for a way out of the labyrinth of progress.” Modern music’s history differs in this respect from that of visual art, which went through a parallel process of abstraction but did not suffer from the same inferiority complex. Although there has been much hand-wringing over the years about whether art has run its course and painting is dead, and while millions of baffled, alienated gallery-goers still sneer at what seems to them the sterility of modern art, there was never in art quite the same crippling fear of the past and pervasive feeling of victimhood, which has given to so many modern music performances over the last half-century or so a glum sanctimony and pathos. Charles Rosen has recalled the time that Dmitri Mitropoulos rehearsed the Princeton choir for the first New York performance of Schoenberg’s Survivor of Warsaw. “I know you hate this piece but it is necessary to suffer for the sake of contemporary music,” Mitropoulos told the singers, although Rosen didn’t actually remember them disliking it.

Music ended up in this predicament, Ross suggests, not least because some composers embraced the extremism of the epoch. “I feel the heat of rebellion rising in even the slightest souls,” Schoenberg wrote in 1910, “and I suspect that even those who have believed in me until now will not want to accept the necessity of this development.”

There was of course no necessity, even though Schoenberg privately felt it. He simply asserted what he wished to believe, that tonality had become degenerate, that music needed to cleanse itself of the past, and that dissonance would be emancipating. Those same words would be turned exactly around by the Nazis and used against him and his music. Extremism took many forms in the last century. Having begun as a romantic Brahmsian composer, he may not have expected controversy or sought it out as a young man, but public antipathy, Schoenberg came to realize, was not merely inevitable but essential to his lasting fame, even as it obscured the frequent expressionism and lyricism in his work. Of course, music lent itself to eliciting a particularly visceral disdain. It is one thing to walk into an art gallery and then choose to turn away from a displeasing picture. It is another to have to be seated for an evening in a concert hall, enduring a piece of music you find disagreeable. Inciting such discomfort, Schoenberg compared himself to a polar explorer, an aviator—the lone hero overcoming hostile forces.

Ross notes that when his listeners in Vienna’s Musikverein in 1913 applauded after the premiere of Gurrelieder, and “even the anti-Schoenbergians…rose to their feet along with the rest of the crowd,” Schoenberg recalled, many years later, he felt “rather indifferent, if not even a little angry…I stood alone against a world of enemies.” He walked onstage and turned his back to the crowd.

In fact this was a celebration for a composer who was already dead, a kind of insult of popular kindness: Gurrelieder had actually been written in 1900 and orchestrated in 1911, so it recalled a less adventurous Schoenberg, and at his next concert, of new music that also included work by his even more radical disciple Berg, jeers rained down. Schoenberg’s back-turning gesture, which, as Ross remarks, he had pictured in a painted self-portrait earlier (see illustration on page 44), would anticipate the response of various composers who followed him.

During the 1920s, Carl Ruggles in America would complain that concerts by the International Composers’ Guild, which he had helped to found to present difficult music absent commercial pressures, were attracting full houses. The organization was “catering to the public,” he fumed. The shibboleth that music to be serious required public disdain mistook thorniness for quality. As Ross writes, because some great music had been rejected, it did not follow that “any rejected music is great.” The debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, when the crowd at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris split into bickering mobs, had become notorious, although in truth the reception to that work was more enthusiastic than avant-gardists later wished to recall, and then it became, as Ross puts it, a “beloved orchestral showpiece.” Composers dreamed of similar scandals. It’s no wonder that many twentieth-century listeners came to feel they were being treated like idiots and straw men, and turned away from new music.

For Ross, among the most dramatic troublemakers in this story is the postwar Frenchman whom Jean-Louis Barrault likened to “a young cat” and Messiaen said was “like a lion that had been flayed alive, he was terrible!” The young Pierre Boulez, as Ross describes him, was calculating, authoritarian, brilliant, and never lost an opportunity to demean colleagues he deemed insufficiently ruthless, which meant nearly everyone, including greater composers, whether Messiaen, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. Despite building on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone achievement, Boulez decided that Schoenberg finally displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.” He wrote that “any musician who has not experienced—we do not say understood, but experienced—the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS,” which everyone understood to mean Stravinsky. There is in Ross’s book the pathetic spectacle of the elderly Stravinsky climbing the steps to Boulez’s upper-floor studio, to win favor with this musical prince of darkness.

Or so the young Boulez comes across. When Hans Werner Henze included just a few triads in Nocturnes and Arias in a concert in 1957, Boulez, we’re told, walked out with his cronies. As Ross writes, this departure imitated Schoenberg’s gesture of turning his back. Boulez’s language was full of violence and calls for order that echoed recent history. “I believe that music should be collective hysteria and spells, violently of the present time,” Boulez wrote in 1948. “Still more violent” was an instruction in the final movement of his Second Piano Sonata, in which the pianist is asked to “pulverize the sound” and “stay without nuances at very high volume.”

Then, as Ross notes, Boulez followed Leonard Bernstein as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, of all things, becoming a “celebrity maestro,” confirming Charles Péguy’s dictum about “everything ending up in politics, or, as the case may be, economics.” When, in recent years, musical fashion and the new market realities led composers to reject the young Boulez’s sort of doctrinaire modernism and the whole idea of writing music in opposition to the public, Boulez, Ross writes, “recalibrated a few of his more extreme positions,” commenting about his earlier work, “‘Well, perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener.'”

Ross never quite comes out and says directly that Boulez represented the emergent orthodoxy that tried to maintain both its power and its status as the avant-garde, but this is his drift. He’s a bit hard on Boulez, although there was certainly an institutionalization of the avant-garde that, fortunately, is not the end of the story of modern music.

One night many years ago, as the last-string music critic for The New York Times, I was assigned to review a concert in a loft in SoHo, my third concert that day. It was scheduled for 9 PM, and I arrived, huffing up several flights of stairs, to find the composer, a young, stubbly Frenchman, sitting in the kitchen of what was clearly a private apartment, finishing dinner with a young woman. Through a blue haze of Gauloise smoke, he motioned for me to sit on one of the folding chairs set up in the living room, where I then waited perhaps an hour. A second visitor, clearly baffled, arrived at some point and then the young woman also came into the room and sat down.

The composer finally emerged, cigarette still dangling from his lips, mumbled that the performance would consist of forty-five minutes of Paris street sounds, flipped a switch on some audio equipment behind him, and retreated back into the kitchen. The occasional wail of Paris police sirens broke what often sounded indistinguishable from the rumble rising up from Broadway, and after a few minutes the young woman left, followed, sheepishly, by the other visitor, leaving me alone, as a critic at a concert no one was attending, raising the Zen question about a tree falling in an empty forest.

There was nothing original about that concert, but its memory has lingered, as a silly but charming incident, and I can still hear that siren against the noisy backdrop of a warm summer evening. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the twentieth century was to let the chaos and cadence of the world into music, a theme Ross often returns to in his book. One of the minor but emblematic figures in this regard is Harry Partch, who embodied West Coast counterculturalism, which would help revolutionize new music by the third quarter of the century.

Born in Oakland in 1901 to missionaries who fled the Boxer Rebellion in China, he was raised in a railway outpost in Arizona, where he heard laborers sing songs in Mandarin and Spanish. For a while, he earned pocket change as a movie-house pianist in Los Angeles, fell in love with Ramon Novarro, the future silent-film idol, while they were both working as ushers at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and meanwhile experimented with various new tonal systems, finding the standard twelve-tone scale unsuitable to the sounds he heard in his head, which related to real speech. Partch invented his own instruments to suit his purposes, and came up with new scales, including one with forty-three tones—a whole microtonal universe, which the new music establishment generally ignored.

For a decade, starting in the Depression, Partch even refused the public subsidies that, increasingly, other composers depended on, and instead chose to ride the rails as a hobo, crisscrossing the country, sleeping in shelters, listening to the noise around him. He incorporated what he heard in music like Barstow, a 1941 setting of songs based on the texts of graffiti he came across along a highway, which, as Ross writes, “comes closer to the twisted white blues of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Tom Waits” than what most people think of as “classical” music.

But it was classical music, in that Partch shared with Schoenberg and Boulez a desire to rethink tonal music, except without much feeling the burden of a European tradition. “There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard of J.S. Bach,” he wrote. And, following Partch, other composers who were similarly well-educated but felt similarly unburdened, from Cage and Lou Harrison, through La Monte Young and Terry Riley, gradually found a path out of the labyrinth.

Steve Reich’s breakthrough can be said to have grown directly from Partch’s example (in turn building on examples of composers before him) of turning speech into music. After recording a Pentecostal minister named Brother Walter in San Francisco, preaching about God’s warning that “it’s gonna rain,” Reich set up a pair of tape decks one day in 1965, cueing both tapes to what he thought was the same spot in the recording. But, in fact, the tapes were slightly out of sync, and when he played them together, the sound began to break up into, as Ross calls it, “a phasing pattern: ‘It’s-s gonna-a rain-n! It’s-‘s gonn-nna rai-in! It’s-t’s gonna-onna rai-ain! It’s-it’s gonna-gonna rain-rain!’

Reich, as a composition student at Mills College, had analyzed Webern scores under the tutelage of Luciano Berio. But he kept finding tonal har-monies creeping into his own music. Berio finally said to him, “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music?” So by the time he played those asynchronous tapes of Brother Walter, Reich wasn’t worrying so much about abiding by the orthodoxy of serialism. He was just listening.

Since then, new music has diversified globally, and Ross has been listening, too. He ends his book with a virtual laundry list of recent music, a bit too anxious not to neglect anyone. Naturally, what’s new today can become orthodox tomorrow unless refreshed by open ears. “Wherever we are,” as Cage wrote in his book Silence, “what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” The last generation or two of musicologists, trying to inscribe historical and political forces into music history, have sometimes condescended toward the formalism of older scholars and toward the biographical expressions of even earlier ones. Ross’s book, embracing all these tactics, in a sense mirrors the pluralism he celebrates in contemporary music of recent decades. Recently reviewing a performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten in New York (see illustration on page 40), he wrote that Zimmermann’s works

rely on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition, but the system is employed less as a free-standing, abstract language than as a kind of master matrix on which any kind of material can be plotted. Thus, the twelve-note row of his 1954 trumpet concerto, “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,” allows for the incorporation of the African-American spiritual of the same name and, implicitly, for a denunciation of racism.

It comes down to sounds, not politics, though—they’re the pedal point of asphalt in the book, the landscape of music, moving through space: “Time stops for a luxurious instant: the orchestra wallows in elemental C major,” he writes of the conclusion of Janác ek’s Jenu fa, when the title character is left alone with her cousin, Laca, who loved her silently while the baby she bore out of wedlock was murdered by her devout stepmother.

Then, over pulsing, heavy-breathing chords, violins and soprano begin to sing a new melody in the vicinity of B-flat—a sustained note followed by a quickly shaking figure, which moves like a bird in flight, gliding, beating its wings, dipping down, and soaring again. This is Jenu fa’s loving resignation as she gives Laca permission to walk away from the ugliness surrounding her. Another theme surfaces, this one coursing down the octave. It is Laca answering: “I would bear far more than that for you. What does the world matter, when we have each other?” The two sing each other’s melodies in turn, the melodies merge, and the opera ends in a tonal sunburst.

When he writes his way, Ross leads you to imagine you really are, to borrow his subtitle, listening to the twentieth century.

This Issue

September 25, 2008