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on 10 December 2008
This has been the subject of a great deal of hype but (perhaps because of that) I found I didn't enjoy it very much. Anyone looking for something as crisply written and as intellectually stimulating as, say, The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes is likely to be disappointed. It's a curiously baggy and unfocussed book, which perhaps reflects some of the difficulties surrounding modern music and its reception among the cultured classes, where it's OK not to know Schoenberg's Five Pieces For Orchestra, but not OK not to know The Waste Land; OK to not know Elliott Carter but not OK not to know Jackson Pollock; where a person might reasonably be expected to have read Wittgenstein's Tractatus but no one is expected to have listened to Le marteau sans maitre It's difficult to imagine a work like this about literature or the fine arts being welcomed so ecstatically.
It seems as if the author unsure who his real audience might be. Much of the first half for instance is made up of potted biographies of composers. These are all very well but that's all they are: potted biographies - the kind of thing most music lovers have already gleaned from sleeve notes. And while Ross is busy making us "at home" with his chosen composers he is neglecting to write about the one thing that makes them interesting - the music that was their life's work. Of course he can write well about music, often very well. There's a marvellous page about the end of Jenufa; he writes feelingly about Berg; and there is an excellent chapter "Beethoven was Wrong" on contemporary American minimalism.
But there are also strange lapses. Benjamin Britten is obviously someone Ross admires both as a man and as a musician, yet he has curious way of showing it. The reader is treated to pedestrian slog through Peter Grimes, a crushingly detailed plot synopsis with musical footnotes, and then an even more dispiriting trudge through Death in Venice. The choice of works has a superficial logic to it - the two operas bracket a career and enable Ross to talk about Britten's homosexuality - but the writing conveys little of the excitement and special atmosphere of this music, while sidelining The Turn of the Screw which many consider Britten's masterpiece.
Anyone thunderstruck by Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus or Carter's Symphony for Three Orchestras, or who has been ravished by some delectable bit of Roberto Gerhard, and wants to know more, or who has seen the DVD of King Priam and wants to explore the rest of Tippett's operas, will find no succour here. Or if you were thinking it was about time to grapple with Skalkottas , Xenakis, Rautavaara or Wolfgang Rihm and were looking for something to help you along, some indication of where to start, the kind of thing you might encounter, or even whether the effort would be worth making, you would look in vain.
The book also has a political bias typical of the time and place of writing - New York in the early years of the 21st century. This means that no progressive movement or endeavour can be mentioned without a condescending sneer. Composers of the thirties and fifties come in for an especially hard time. This is not just irritating, it is also completely a-historical. Even a brief flip through The Road to Wigan Pier or The Grapes or Wrath - to look no further - ought to be enough to show that there were plenty of people in the 1930s who had good reason to have anti-capitalist feelings and that to be against the status quo was not invariably the mark of a dupe or a scoundrel. There is sense too that there is something weird and personal going on when the book swerves aside twice to belabour the Brecht/Eisler The Measures Taken (surely not a very important work in the musical scale of things), characterising it the second time as "terrorist chic". This is a remark which might go down well at a Manhattan dinner party but ought never to have made it into print. Brecht's play is about political activists and labour organisers, not terrorists. The two are not at all the same thing, though perhaps Ross is here angling for a seat on the board of Wal-Mart. (And where, it seems fair to ask, were the much-vaunted fact checkers in all this?). There's some odd ideological wobbling too over European arts subsidy, about which Ross is generally disparaging, while praising the BBC, which he credits for the liveliness of London's new music scene.
The book's biggest disappointment however is that it is unlikely to send the reader rushing to the concert hall or record store to seek out new experiences or back to the CD collection to listen to old favourites with new ears. It's a pity that all the publicity may mean that other, better, more thought-provoking writers about 20th century music are in danger of being overlooked. These include Paul Griffiths (studies of individual composers, collected reviews and his short history of Western music); Andrew Porter (collected reviews); and Charles Rosen (on Schoenberg and Carter). And of course there are many composers who have written brilliantly about their own music and that of their contemporaries, in particular Elliott Carter, Alexander Goehr, Pierre Boulez, Robin Holloway, Hugh Wood and, certainly not least, Arnold Schoenberg whose essay Brahms the Progressive is almost extravagantly ear-opening. None of these are as comprehensive as The Rest is Noise but they communicate a lot more pleasure and are likely to lead to better listening.