Saturday, March 08, 2008

Music Historians Write About The Music They Have Not The Music They'd Like To Have

The most provocative observation of the day is not Morag Grant describing Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise as "the Donald Rumsfeld view of music history" (thanks to On An Overgrown Path for catching the link) but rather another observation, by my daughter, that if Stravinsky had been a Simpson's character, he'd have written The Four Fingers.

As for The Rest Is Noise, I think the BBC reviewers sounded a bit silly as it began with a complaint about the under-covered English repertoire, when the book did in fact put a major focus on at least one English composer (Britten) and the book as a whole is less a reassessment of trans-Atlantic currents than a reassessment of the art/entertainment boundary, which necessarily places more emphasis on American repertoire. But any review which begins with a catalogue of topics believed to have been under- or un-addressed is going to be silly anyway: you can't reduce a review to a list of grievances. A book like The Rest is Noise is a personal survey, not a comprehensive survey, and critique has to be located in the strength of the narrative presented, not in the tales left untold. I do think that there are serious questions to ask about Ross's narrative, and while Ross deserves praise, for example, for his assessment of Sibelius, a composer with genuinely radical musical ideas which have been neglected by most musical histories, the emphasis on Britten and Copland is -- to my ears, at least -- a conservative move, and one that does not focus on the potential for music to live in human history as neither accompaniment nor lament to political and social history but rather as an experience which changes over time in its own terms. Britten and Copland, accomplished as they were, and certainly illustrative of particular elements of cultural and political history, were not, in the end, composers of music which challenge, indeed change, the way we listen. But I suppose that's the criteria I use in composing my own narrative (such as it is, scattered through my music and writings), and being able to recognize that is a perfect illustration of how valuable a book like Ross's can be.


Ben.H said...

It's the oldest critic's trick in the book: think of some stuff not mentioned in the book and then complain it's not there.

It shows the paucity of good published writing on 20th century non-pop music, that everyone reading this book wants to find their own experience of music reflected in it. There are so few alternatives in which to look for it.

Henry Holland said...

I think the two critics have come under criticism for something they didn't do--it was the presenter who tried the "why not more British music thing". This Overgrown Path post covers that:

This Overgrown Path, I think, contains a nice summary by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, who has a terrific blog, The Rambler. I especially find Mr. R-J's 4th point, about the coverage of the last 30 years or so to be apt; when John Adams (!!!) is considered The Great Composer from that period, well, NO.

Since Mr. Ross' period as a serious music listener coincides with those 30 years, his focus on minimalism to the exclusion of other, far more interesting, musical trends that have happened in Europe is kind of understandable.

I'm very happy for the success Mr. Ross' book has had, but I think it's hardly as all-encompassing as its partisans have made it out to be.

And gotta love Pliabe at OAOP, taking a pot shot at Kyle Gann like that.