Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Rest Is Noise

When I love a book, I read it slowly. Keri Hume’s The Bone People, for example. It took me six weeks. I'd read a page or two, then set it down and step out on the balcony. The region of Québec I lived in at the time is called la Gatineau—a rugged, hilly landscape filled with conifers and lakes, and granite that turns pink at sunset. Looking out across the valley, I'd relive the deep humanity that runs through every sentence of Hume’s prose. Like a box of chocolates, her writing begged to be stretched out as long as possible.

* * 

It took a month to finish Alex Ross’s wonderful account of music in the twentieth century, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. The slowdown stemmed, in part, from wanting to enjoy the writing itself. Ross is very good. His prose is clean and unselfconscious, plus he has the gift of making history itself a character, an entity that grows before your eyes. Periodically, his observations have the force of poetry, as in this brilliant passage:

“Composing is a difficult business...a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. What emerges is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Unlike a novel or a painting, a score gives up its full meaning only when it is performed in front of an audience; it is a child of loneliness that lives off crowds.”

His treatment of composers is thorough, accurate, and rivetting. I was particularly taken with his section on Olivier Messaien, whose extravagantly beautiful scores have been enthralling me for decades. The background to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is, in itself, an inspiring read. And Ross doesn’t make the mistake of merely writing about music; he provides a website where you can listen to examples (

I have only two quibbles with the book. One, admittedly, is personal. Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, while not as well known as The Threepenny Opera, has always struck me as one of the wonders of the Weimar period. Ross doesn’t even mention it. The other is Ross’s inexplicably long-winded blow-by-blow of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Obviously a personal favorite of Ross’s, I found myself flipping pages looking for the end.

Otherwise, Ross has written a deeply satisfying account of the politics of musical style in what, for future art music lovers, will probably be a lost century. His history illuminates what I learned at the Conservatory, and, more importantly, concurs with what, as a young composer, I experienced first hand.

Which leads to the second reason for the month-long read: my personal engagement in the history.

* * *

Conceivably the worst time in history to have been born a composer, especially in Canada, was the latter half of the twentieth century. An attitude persisted, at least among the educated middle class, that Western art music was integral to our culture, and the summum of all musics. If you’d suggested back then that classical music was irrelevant to North American society (as New York City oboist, Blair Tindell, does in her excellent autobiography, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music), you’d have been met with blank stares. And yet, at the time, living classical music was patently irrelevant: nobody liked it, nobody wanted it, and nobody understood it except a cabal of over-educated specialists.

(Of which, sadly, I was one, with the result that I remain, to this day, passionately fond of the repertoire everybody else loves to hate.)

Classical music had become separated from its audience. But if that weren’t bad enough for budding composers, the elites inside the tiny bubble of irrelevance that was contemporary art music had decreed that tonality was dead. “Tonal” music, for the uninitiated, inherently sounds right and makes sense to Western ears, which meant, in effect, it was no longer acceptable to write classical music the concert-going public liked or understood.

And we bought it.

To anyone not brought up in music, it must seem insane that three generations of composers actually believed Western music had evolved past tonality. But they did, myself included, and this is what Ross’s book is all about. Not so much the dissolution of tonality—that’s been well covered elsewhere—but the myriad social and political reasons why atonality became dogma.

I wish I'd had the insights Ross provides back then. They would have helped me understand my life a whole lot better. By the time I entered the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music to study composition, I was already steeped in the notion that “serious” contemporary music was atonal. So much so that I didn't see anything odd about dividing my output into two categories: “real” compositions (atonal and formidable), and ones that didn’t count (tonal and accessible). I was actually embarrased that my simple, tonal settings of five songs from Lord of the Rings were hugely more popular than the dense, atonal scores I was producing for my professors.

Not that I minded composing atonal music. It was intellectual junk food for a guy whose notion of background music was Ligeti or Stockhausen.

The problem with atonal music, other than that it alienated the public, was that no one, not even Schoenberg—the progenitor of atonality—had come up with a satisfactory musical language to contain it. Composers in the twentieth century had to reinvent the wheel every time they sat down to write. In Mozart’s time, musicians and audiences all “spoke” tonality. A composer with something to say had the wherewithal to say it. That was never the case with atonality, which wasn’t a language, but rather sound in search of an organizing principle. Formerly, composers found their “voice” within a common musical language. In the 20th century, they had to invent their own language before they could speak at all.

Legions of composition students, the pool of “tomorrow’s greats”, foundered under the burden. So did many of the greats, who either bounced from -ism to -ism, went mute for tortured years, or simply gave up.

A disenchantment with writing atonal music set in in my fourth year of University. I started having trouble finding anything to write about, and my academic performance began to slip. I didn’t understand. I'd started musical training at age four, yet here I was, in my early twenties, poised to complete my studies, suddenly apathetic about the career I'd spent so long preparing for.

I fought against a growing sense of the futility of composing over the next decade or so. I re-incorporated tonality into my music and succeeded, for a while, in finding an authentic voice. But I knew the works would never get performed. Not tonal enough for society concerts, not avant-garde enough for New Music venues, they fell through the cracks of an artform nobody would admit wasn’t really all that important anyway. In time, I ceased composing altogether.

* * *

Until I read The Rest Is Noise, I don’t think I really understood how my slide into silence, insignificant when compared to, say, Sibelius’s similar slide, was symptomatic of a century that itself had no idea where to turn aesthetically. It wasn’t just music. All the arts were plagued by “-ism” wars, effectively blocking artists from ever developing a common language for their work. Worse, as with music, a totalitarian insistence that modernity entailed a total rupture from the past—regardless of whatever good the past still held—led to some of the most arrogantly awful artworks in the history of Western culture.

Thankfully, even though I've given up composing, I've been able remain an artist, albeit reinvented as a writer. Somehow, the novel survived the predations of Joyce and his ilk, and remains a relevant, expressive and popular artform.


  1. Replies
    1. What an odd statement. I wish I'd come across this comment back when it was made. I'd love to know what it means.

  2. Agree with your comments about Peter Grimes. I prefer the Four Sea Interludes. The whole opera gets a bit tedious and long winded itself, and I too flipped past that section. While outside the scope of the book, if I were going to spend that much time and text "reading about" an opera, I think a Mozart opera or a study on "The Ring" would be more likely to hold my attention.