Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Rest is Noise

I must apologise to anyone who isn't interested in music that I seem to have had a string of musical posts lately - normal service will be resumed soon, honestly.

After my recent suggestion that there hasn't been a truly great serious composer since Stravinsky, I was pointed to a book called The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. (Thanks to the erudite Andrew Furlow of Icon Books for the recommendation.) You can see this book here at The Rest is Noise and here at The Rest Is Noise.

I'd highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to find out more about the development of serious music in the twentieth century. I had an unusually trendy music teacher, so I was very much brought up at school on Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern et al, but there was still lots there that was new to me in the early twentieth century, and more so on the more modern composers.

The book isn't without fault. It's very long and I did skip read various parts that didn't interest me too much. The (US) author doesn't cover British composers enough - you'd think Britten was the only 20th century British composer, which is a little unfair. And his most modern section omits many of the better known modern composers. Even so, it's a very useful book and one that I'll be adding to my library.

Does it change my opinion? No, not in the slightest. If anything it reinforces the idea that Stravinsky was the last great, with the likes of Mahler, (R) Strauss, Schoenberg, Poulenc and Shostakovitch nibbling at his heels, but never achieving the same true greatness. Equally it seems to support the assessment that the Cage, Glass, Stockhausen etc. never achieved and never will achieve public acceptance or true greatness, that they remain music of the intellect, not music that really grabs people and enthralls them. Like much modern 'art', I'd suggest anything you have to have explained to appreciate it isn't very good art.

One thing this has done is encourage me to revisit some old favourites - so I will be digging out the Mahler and Stravinsky recordings - and visit for the first time since school some Schoenberg et al. I've tended to spend so much time listening to Tudorbethan church music (still unrivalled), that I've neglected this stuff. That reminds of one other slight flaw in Ross's book. To read it, you would think that serious music has always previously used major or minor keys, and the modernists were the first to move away from this. But when you go back to the Tudorbethan stuff, the concept of keys hadn't been invented yet. You get strange effects, like what is in essence using one key for ascending notes and another for descending notes simultaneously. You get those piercing clashes that the likes of John Sheppard are so fond of, that make you think 'He can't do that!' But he does. I think that's why my favourites are either old or modern - in the classical rump of serious music post Bach and pre Mahler they stuck to the rules too much.


  1. You should also look up on YouTube the brilliant videos of Howard Goodall's 4-episode series, "How Music Works" - the episodes are dedicated to Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Bass - and in the Harmony episode, he talks about that tradition of the different up and down scales in Tudor music. The rest of the episodes are also great fun and very informative.

  2. I'd second that - I thought the series was excellent.