Outside the Boxes: A History of Modern Music That Does Not Respect Convention

Richard Strauss. Alex Ross unconventionally uses the 1906 Austrian premiere of Strauss's opera
Richard Strauss. Alex Ross unconventionally uses the 1906 Austrian premiere of Strauss's opera "Salome" to mark the start of 20th-century music.
By Stephen Walsh
Professor of music at Cardiff University, Wales, a music critic for the London Independent and author of a two-volume biography of Stravinsky
Sunday, November 25, 2007


Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross

Farrar Straus Giroux. 624 Pp. $30.

The shelves of music libraries groan under the accumulation of histories of 20th-century music. But they are a dispiriting collection, partly because their implicit claim -- even if they dodge the actual term -- to be "history" is obvious nonsense. How can you write a history of something that is still going on?

The answer has usually been to stick to a set of preordained categories, often decreed by composers or academics, with unappealing titles like modernism, neoclassicism, serialism, etc., and let anything and anyone that doesn't fit them (jazz, Sibelius, Gershwin, film music) go hang. Happily, Alex Ross, who writes about music for the New Yorker and maintains one of the best-informed music blogs on the Web, has avoided this trap. The most striking thing about "The Rest Is Noise" is its refusal to conform to the standard headings and judgments beloved of historians of modern music and its energetic mixing of technical, stylistic and even chronological categories.

Ross clearly realizes that music doesn't evolve in rigid boxes. And there's no doubt that pigeonholing has been the evil genius of the music of the last century. It was pigeonholing that produced Arnold Schoenberg's repetitive or "serial" technique -- which he famously claimed would prolong German musical supremacy for 100 years. It was pigeonholing that temporarily sidelined Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and others (because they didn't go serial or atonal). And it was pigeonholing that gave birth to the politicization of musical styles in postwar Europe (Pierre Boulez announcing that non-serial composers were "useless") and America, where the left-leaning Aaron Copland went populist in such works as "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo," and after the war was investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his pains.

All along, of course, this restrictive impulse has given us jazz, pop, world music, classical and all the other entrenched categories of the Google age, to the paradoxical point where "music" now means anything but Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and company (which is probably why Ross has carefully excluded the word from his title).

"The Rest Is Noise" explores all these various boxes and -isms in an evenhanded and approachable way, with the absence of dogmatism that is the mark of a true enthusiast. The conventional picture of so-called modern music, in which various figures of admitted stature gradually drop off the train of progress as it proceeds on its not particularly merry way, is quietly abandoned in favor of something closer to what happens in an actual station -- a constant, unpredictable to and fro of people and incident, unexpected meetings, conversation and argument, pushing and shoving: a sort of perpetual postmodernism (another word that, significantly, Ross does not use).

I exaggerate, of course. No history can wholly avoid categories. But Ross's starting point is novel all the same. In Paul Griffiths's "Concise History of Modern Music" (1978), modern music begins with the delicious flute solo that opens Claude Debussy's "Pr¿lude ¿ l'apr¿s-midi d'un faune" (1894), just as for Griffiths the theories of Boulez (who first touted the idea of Debussy as founding father of modernism) are the key to music since World War II. But Ross makes light, not to say fun, of the "pseudoscientific mentality" of the Darmstadt summer schools in Germany, where Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen held court in the early '50s, "researching" ever more cerebral ways of writing music. Instead of Debussy, he opens 20th-century music with the Austrian premiere in Graz in 1906 of Richard Strauss's "Salome," a work subsequently admired for its daring and also hated for its vulgarity.

From there Ross tracks through the next 100 years with a strong eye to cultural and political, as well as aesthetic, currents. After "Salome" he passes logically to the disintegration of traditional tonality in Debussy and Schoenberg (a pair not commonly wedded), a chapter that links the violent folksiness of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with '20s jazz, another on the line of American music from the experimentalist Charles Ives to the jazz master Duke Ellington, and a whole chapter on Jean Sibelius, a composer routinely despised by right-thinking modernists but treated here as a radical who happened to prefer a transparent tonal language at a time when atonality was the essential style in progressive circles. Later, a chunk of the book is devoted to the politics of music before, during and after World War II in Russia, Germany and -- not much less chilling -- the United States. Finally, a brilliantly eclectic study of music since the war debouches in a survey of bebop, rock and minimalism, provocatively titled (after John Cage) "Beethoven Was Wrong."

Thus Ross declines to approve any of the doctrinaire positions of a century riven by battles of style and system. He discounts nothing on principle. So Stockhausen is here, but so are Benjamin Britten and bebop, Miles Davis as well as Olivier Messiaen. Behind all this, I suspect, is a reluctance to see the history of something whose outcomes are as yet unclear in any but an objective light. But, equally, the approach is fed by taste, experience and, to some extent, locale. As a New York critic, Ross is in a strong position to sample and assess every kind of music; at the same time there is an automatic American bias that is no doubt more apparent to a European like me. So such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Henri Dutilleux, Hans Werner Henze and one or two others who might be expected to figure in a revisionist history of the last century are more or less ignored in favor of Americans such as Virgil Thomson and Carl Ruggles, who, from this side of the ocean, may now seem irretrievably minor.

Ross is not scoring parochial points. He's writing a history whose American focus becomes more significant the more one inclines to ridicule the aesthetic infighting that has plagued European music since the last world war. After all, the intellectual gridlock in France and Germany was loosened by Cage and broken finally by American minimalists such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Whatever one thinks of these composers' music, its contemporary influence is impossible to deny, its future significance an open book which, to his credit, Ross doesn't attempt to close.

This is the best general study of a complex history too often claimed by academic specialists on the one hand and candid populists on the other. Ross plows his own broad furrow, beholden to neither side, drawing on both. It's an impressive, invigorating achievement.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company