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Listening to the 20th Century

On January 1st covering

I’ve been reading Alex Ross‘s wonderful tome The Rest is Noise. A history of 20th Century music, it ties together what was happening musically as the vocabulary of the 20th Century was developed, along with what was happening politically and economically. If you want an antidote to the impression that “serious” composers lived on Mount Olympus somewhere, away from the gritty concerns of commercialism and popularity, you couldn’t do better.

Todays musicians have to find a way to reach an audience and make an income under conditions of uncertainty and flux. The old ways of doing things are breaking down and it’s unclear which of the new ways will endure. As Mr. Byrne might say, “same as it ever was”. This is the way it’s been for musicians since … Haydn? Mozart? Beethoven? This was especially tumultuous in the 20th Century.

Another theme that pervades Ross’s book is the flimsy and artificial boundary between “serious” and “popular” music — and how the real story is more complex and interesting. I know that serious and popular music have been cross-fertilizing since at least the Middle Ages. I didn’t know about the classical training of some leading Harlem Renaissance musicians, or how deeply interested some European musicians were in African-American music.

I thought I knew 20th Century music history fairly well but Ross enriches the connections through his deep appreciation of the music. He is a deft writer, integrating masses of research without becoming ponderous. His voice is remarkably even-handed, and he avoids the temptation to create paper heroes and monsters. His empathy for the plights of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Strauss, and others tempers his judgment for their complicity with Stalin and Hitler. Ross doesn’t let anyone completely off the hook, either … Copland doesn’t look so heroic with his naive dalliance with Communism and his use as a new-Deal propagandist. It comes through that the great powers were interested in the great power of music as a means of controlling the masses. A chilling and cautionary tale.

The music samples linked from his blog are tied to each chapter. they enrigh the reading wonderfully — especiailly for those pieces you know but don’t know you know.

I should probably finish the book before waxing enthusiastic. I’m only up to John Cage right now. but it’s an awesome book.

I feel a bit sad about one thing. This is clearly a classic work, and it will suffer the fate of the classics — it will be assigned reading and students will approach it expecting something dessicated and stuffy. It’s a treat to read this as a brand-new work. And it’s pleasant to imagine future readers biting into it and finding it full of juice, to their surprise and delight. Just like listeners surprised by the life and passion in “classic” music works.

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