Reflections are only that, reflections, nothing more nothing less. Often these reflections are related to books I read, but occasionally also other things. These are often written very late, very fast,  using notes from my mobile phone, so the grammar and spelling is horrible.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

This book is fantastic. I have read it for more than a year and I’m still not done. First I read it at the same speed as I do with most books, but realised that I only had scratched the surface. I then read it over a long time where I streamed/downloaded all music that was mentioned in to book and listened to that while reading and thinking about the corresponding parts. After that, I went back and I’m now currently reading the parts where I think Ross has captured interesting transitions in society, from the perspective of music, and listened to the music related to the transitions mentioned in the book. I’m not sure when I will put this book to the side, but I’ve been asked about my reflections for a long time and I thought I could share some reflections while still reading it.

As a disclosure I should confess that I have read very little about classical music, especially modern. So, part of my passion for this book is probably due to the fact that so much in this book is new to me. I have been afraid that my emotional experience will be “tainted” and I would lose the emotional connection to the music if I add knowledge and theories about the music I listen to. With this book I can say that this  is not the case, the fact that I have read about most of the events Ross discusses from many different angles (political, economic, philosophic, etc.) meant that I have now added a flavour that I have missed so far. For me this book has already made so much of what I have read earlier richer and the music has not changed.

The book is so well written that I on occasions I took a step back and wondered if Ross would pull me down a rabbit hole to show the danger of being swept away by a book. Especially the parts about music and politics were interesting, and I do not think they would survive in mass media that tend to simplify and polarize.

I appreciate that the book does not really have a structure beyond a rough chronological order. In most chapters it is a small group of composers that we follow, with particular focus on one, and how they evolve as individuals as they struggle/enjoy/fight for/doubt some of their most well-known work. In other chapters Ross takes a step back and show how different composers fit into a broader historic context.

The Rest is Noise is so filled with interesting observations, fascinating knowledge, inspirational stories, and fantastic quotes that I feel that a proper reflection would be many times longer than the actual book.

I’ll just include one (random) observation about the relation between music and art that I found very interesting and it is a discussion about the contrast between Vassily Kandinsky’s “Impression III (Concert)” and Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra”, the third to be specific.

“Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listening to a new work in a concert hall. Picture yourself in a room with, say, Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert), painted in 1911. Kandinsky and Schoenberg knew each other, and shared common aims; Impression III was inspired by one of Schoenberg’s concerts. If visual abstraction and musical dissonance were precisely equivalent, Impression III and the third of the Five Pieces for Orchestra would present the same degree of difficulty. But the Kandinsky is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean if for a closer look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rhythm. They are a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.”

For those who do not have them fresh in mind here are two links: Kandinsky’s “Impression III (Concert)” Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra”

Curious to understand the full context for the experience I tried to find information about the full concert. Then I found an article by Zachary Woolfe, Painting Music, and Listening to Art where he wrote “The concert opened with the String Quartet No. 2 […] and moved on to the Three Piano Pieces, then to five of his songs and the String Quartet No. 1.

String Quartet No. 2 String Quartet No. 1

But as I write this I feel that this is not fair to the book, as the part above will take up such a large part of this reflection, but was only one of hundreds equally interesting observations that inspired new thoughts and knowledge.

There are also short nuggets that makes you wonder how you could have missed them (perhaps it has been my resistance to read about classical music that has resulted in a blindness for patterns) like this observation about the movie 2001:

“Among other things, the film neatly brackets the entire arc of twentieth-century musical history. It begins with Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra , the music of nature’s original majesty. In the final section, the movie is subsumed into Ligeti’s alternate universe, spiraling through the outer limits of expression before returning to the point of origin. As the august Zarathustra chords sound again at the end, the cycle is ready to begin anew.”

Ross also makes some very chilling observations on how music during parts of history seemed to live in a separate universe (like to many people at that time). E.g. this observation “On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisl ⁄ awów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.”

One aspect, of what I think describes Ross view, on the relation between art and politics is beautifully described in the following quote: “Although there is no point in trying to restore Schopenhauer’s separation of art and state, it is equally false to claim the opposite, that art can somehow be swallowed up in history or irreparably damaged by it. Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves.”

There are also condensed parts, such as this about Metamorphosen by Strauss, where a number of threads are pulled together in ways that forever link a number of iconic musical and historical events: “In the final section a new element enters: a quotation from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica. As the story goes, Beethoven had planned to dedicate the Eroica to Napoleon, but when Napoleon crowned himself emperor the composer crossed out the dedication and wrote instead, “To the memory of a great man.” It has long been thought that Strauss was saying the same about Hitler, burying a man in whom he once believed. In light of the hidden citation of Goethe’s line “No one can know himself,” it is more likely that the hero being laid to rest is Strauss himself. There are anguished dissonances as Strauss’s own funereal anthem falls in and out of sync with Beethoven’s. Having seemingly reached bottom, it goes two more long steps down—a low G, then an even lower C. It is like the sunrise fanfare of Thus Spoke Zarathustra moving in retrograde, the harmonic series rewinding to the fundamental. There is no “light in the night,” only night.”

There is also a discussion about the current lack of beauty in classical music that helped me feel less frustrated with, what I consider, so much uninteresting music these days. I still have a hard time to appreciate much of the contemporary classical music, but feel that I understand (and in some ways respect) why we are where we are. More than anything else the book also gave me hope for the future. Below three key quotes:

"OMGUS [The U.S. Military Government in Germany] inadvertently helped to bring about a “segregation of the modern and the popular.”"

"there was, on the one hand, a classical establishment that eluded denazification, and, on the other, an avant-garde establishment that opposed itself so determinedly to the aesthetics of the Nazi period that it came close to disavowing the idea of the public concert. The middlebrow ideal of a popular modernism withered away, caught between extremes of revolution and reaction."

“The American composer Elliott Carter explained why he gave up Copland-style populism and Stravinsky-style neoclassicism: “Before the end of the Second World War, it became clear to me, partly as a result of rereading Freud and others and thinking about psychoanalysis, that we were living in a world where this physical and intellectual violence would always be a problem and that the whole conception of human nature underlying the neoclassic esthetic amounted to a sweeping under the rug of things that, it seemed to me, we had to deal with in a less oblique and resigned way.”

I would have liked to read more about what beyond God that can create an urge to write music that transcends. Nature seem to present that kind of inspiration to some, but for many the “divinity” seem to the most powerful inspiration, even if it is a mixture, e.g. this quote “These allusions suggest that Feldman is creating a divine music, appropriate to the somber spirituality of Rothko’s chapel. In a sense, he is fusing two different divinities, representative of two major strains in twentieth-century music: the remote, Hebraic God of Schoenberg’s opera and the gentle, iconic presence of Stravinsky’s symphony.”

Perhaps some of my modern favourites can be explained in a way that I had not thought about:

“It is not hard to guess why Pärt and several like-minded composers—notably Henryk Górecki and John Tavener—achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the eighties and nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture. For some, Pärt’s strange spiritual purity filled a more desperate need; a nurse in a hospital ward in New York regularly played Tabula Rasa for young men who were dying of AIDS, and in their last days they asked to hear it again and again.”

This was a surprising triangle for me. I have never before linked these three composers together. But if I do, as I did find them during the nineties, I would like to add Penderecki and Bryars, this pentagram brings together a longing for the eternal beautiful, other modern composers I like, e.g. , Nyman and Glass, seem to look more into the future. Others more in new interesting directions, e.g. György Ligeti and Thomas Adés.