Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Signing Off on the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross @ An Die Musik, Baltimore, MD
December 4, 2007

Discussing and signing The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

The magical Rest is Noise book tour finally made its way to Charm City as Alex Ross drew a sizable crowd of Peabody staff, mid-Atlantic based composers, bloggers and classical music enthusiasts. The fact that the New Yorker music critic and celebrated new music blogger has drawn so many accolades and enthusiastic response for this labor of love is an inspiration that I shall read with great anticipation.

My initial impression is that this book succeeds at telling a compelling narrative of the history of twentieth century "classical" music by making difficult choices on which key figures to focus upon. Ross indicated that he consciously made the decision to write one chapter about Jean Sibelius and one chapter about Benjamin Britten as two figures who have been overlooked in the standard narrative of twentieth century music that favors "innovation" and "progress" at the expense of composers who did not abandon tonality or compose music that was overtly radical. He also indicated that he could easily have written chapters on similar "outsider" composers such as Vaughn Williams or Carl Nielson and countless others and ended up with a more encyclopedic work as a result. And given the depth and range of music in the last century it is tempting to become lost in such vast depths when telling the story. I hope other writers with similar passion and different perspectives will provide equally compelling tales as the twentieth century continues to be re-assessed.

Sibelius and Britten are two composers I have not studied beyond casual hearing. I am partially guilty of the dismissive attitude that has placed them at the periphery of twentieth century music history. Ross is entirely correct to suggest applying a new listening to this music along with a re-evaluation of the attitudes that marginalize such figures.

As the discussion turned to the music of John Adams I began to realize why I find the enthusiastic reception of Adams' music seems so puzzling. The synthesis of the 19th century Romantic aesthetic into his overall sound is not one I had picked up on and is probably the element that I find most difficult to digest. As my own ears slowly unfold to embrace the music of Richard Strauss and other Romantically inclined figures I may eventually come around to appreciate Adams' music more fully.

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