Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Rest Is Noise

The first thing to say about Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007) is that it's a remarkable accomplishment. As the subtitle suggests, the book attempts to tell the story of 20th-century music, which is inextricably bound with the story of the 20th century itself: the scandalous success of Richard Strauss' perverse Salome; the riot that greeted the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's dissonant Rite of Spring; the political polarization and avant-garde experimentation of Weimar Berlin; the populist yearnings of 1930s America; the smothering aesthetic conformity imposed by Hitler's and Stalin's murderous regimes; the weaponization of culture in the Cold War; the experimentation and cross-fertilization of the 60s and 70s.

And many of the stories Ross tells are irresistible. Schoenberg's breakthrough into atonality was inspired by his wife's torrid affair with a suicidal artist. After a savage denunciation of his Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (1934) in Pravda, Shostakovich waited by his telephone for a call from Stalin that might mean the gulag. In post-WWII Germany, the Darmstadt Summer Institute for serialist music was sponsored in large measure by the US military government. Similarly, the CIA, through front organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, funded the performance of pieces by the pacifist/anarchist/gay composer Lou Harrison. The flamboyant figure of Nicholas Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin and head of the CCF) keeps cropping up: for several decades he seemed to have connections to every official source of cultural largesse in America.

Ross also wrestles honorably with the difficulty of writing about music, avoiding both abstruse technical analysis comprehensible only to a tiny percentage of his readership, and hyperbolic (and largely futile) Greil-Marcusian attempts to capture the emotional experience of listening. Ross splits the difference: there is some discussion of keys, triads, and tritones, but also evocative descriptions of how various pieces sound. If it doesn't always work, and if a few too many pieces are described as "silvery" or "swirling," there's no shame in falling short of the unattainable ideal of both precision and accessibility.

Perhaps it's just that I was already familiar with some of the music he writes about, but I was surprised to discover how few pieces his musical descriptions made me want to hear (or re-hear), and most of those were concentrated in the past forty years or so. For the record, they include György Ligeti's choral works (excerpts of which are on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)); Alvin Lucier's "I am sitting in a room" (1969); Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa (1977) and Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977); Pierre Boulez's Repons (1984); and György Kurtág's Stele (1994). Which brings up the imbalance in his book: it takes Ross two-thirds of its length (355 out of 540 pages) just to reach 1950. He spends an entire 45-page chapter on Shostakovich's travails under Stalin and successor Soviet governments.

Frankly, I would rather have heard more about the cross-fertilization between jazz, rock and avant-garde art music in the 1960s and 70s. It's fascinating stuff. In 1964, for example, a young novelty-song writer for Pickwick Records named Lou Reed was trying to generate a hit single for his (entirely made up) dance craze called "The Ostrich." Somehow recruited for his backup band The Primitives were three members of LaMonte Young's minimalist Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate: sculptor Walter De Maria, filmmaker Tony Conrad, and electric violist John Cale. Reed and Cale, of course, went on to form The Velvet Underground with Eternal Music drummer Angus Maclise (the name of the band came from a pulp S & M paperback given to Reed by Conrad). Maclise--because he refused to be told when to stop and start--was soon replaced by Mo Tucker. With the addition of guitarist Sterling Morrison, The Velvet Underground went on to record the least-heard and most influential debut album in rock history, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). The Velvet Underground's music made heavy use of techniques from the avant-garde such as drones and amplified viola, both of which had been employed in Young's group; found sounds, as in John Cage's tape experiments; and sustained dissonance, which Ross compares to the music of Iannis Xenakis. Reed's intense lyrics about urban street life rode on top of (or occasionally were buried underneath) the waves of sound, although in "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" Reed and the band also created some of the most delicately gorgeous songs ever written.

But The Velvet Underground was only the first (and best) of many rock bands influenced by the experimental strain in contemporary art music. Ross almost entirely neglects the loosely associated and stylistically diverse No Wave, which included composers such as Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham who wrote for "orchestras" of massed electric guitars (Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, later of noise band Sonic Youth, played in Branca's groups). John Zorn's Spy vs. Spy combined thrash-punk with Ornette Coleman's free jazz, while hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa created sonic collages that updated Weimar composer Stefan Wolpe's "compositions" for multiple turntables. On the West Coast, bands like Flipper took distortion, repetition, and je m'en foutisme to extremes that were either brilliant or unbearable, depending on your tolerance for shambolic chaos. A few of these figures get brief mentions in The Rest Is Noise but I would have liked to have seen Ross devote more space to them and less to figures like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, about whom so much has been written already. And in a book subtitled "Listening To the Twentieth Century," it's embarrassing that Ross spends just a few pages covering developments in jazz.

To be fair, there's no way to encompass the wild profusion of styles and genres of music over the past 100 years in a single book. And any writer that tackles such a vast subject must of necessity focus on a few key figures. I guess, though, I was hoping that The Rest Is Noise would be more like an updating and amplification of John Rockwell's brilliant and boundary-smashing All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (Knopf, 1983). Rockwell's book sent me out to haunt record stores and libraries to hear the music he so compellingly described; as I mention above, Ross's book generally didn't have the same effect. In any case, The Rest Is Noise cries out for a companion CD (or web page of audio downloads). Perhaps its unexpected success in hardback will convince the publisher to allow Ross to create one for the paperback edition.

Postscript: While writing this post I discovered that John Rockwell has an Arts Journal blog, Rockwell Matters, which is sure to be worth reading. Ross himself has a blog entitled The Rest Is Noise; while it is consistently the top-ranked (i.e. most visited and linked) classical music blog, I don't actually find myself browsing it as often as I should. I do, however, make sure to read all of his articles in the New Yorker, which are examples of music journalism at its finest.

Update: As I should have realized, Ross created a page on his blog of audio clips to accompany The Rest Is Noise; you can find it here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tehelka on non-Indian fans of Bollywood

Tehelka, a magazine devoted to Indian news and culture, has published a really delightful story by Nisha Susan on Western fans of Bollywood films. "The Mems and Saabs of Berlin" (and the US, and Korea, and the web) justly devotes most of its space to true Bollywood experts like Beth Loves Bollywood and Memsaab. In the final paragraph Susan included a quote from my post Why I love Bollywood; I'm honored to be included in such company, but I feel a bit out of place. Memsaab reports seeing over 600 Indian films; we're approaching 100, and I feel like we've barely scratched the surface (simply to see Shah Rukh Khan's entire body of work you'd have to watch 60 movies, and we've only seen 35 of them).

Before this, I was unfamiliar with Tehelka (whose name is apparently an Urdu word signifying "the tumult provoked by a daring act"). But its website banner offers supportive quotes from writers Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan) and Arundhati Roy (God of Small Things), which would be recommendation enough. If you need any more encouragement, the Wikipedia article on Tehelka mentions that it was shut down by the government after it reported on corruption in the awarding of arms contracts, and that another investigative series has shown the complicity of the state government of Gujurat in the mass killings of Muslims there in 2002. If you're interested in the culture and politics of India--home of something like 1 out of every 6 people on the planet--it looks like essential reading. I know I'll be bookmarking it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

In a glowing review in today's New York Times of Jhumpa Lahiri's new book Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf, 2008), Michiko Kakutani writes,

"The last three overlapping tales in this volume tell a single story about a Bengali-American girl and a Bengali-American boy, whose crisscrossing lives make up a poignant ballad of love and loss and death. Hema and Kaushik get to know each other as teenagers....Hema secretly nurses a crush on Kaushik, but he is oblivious to her schoolgirl antics and preoccupied with his mother’s deteriorating health."

Kaushik becomes a photojournalist; "Hema, meanwhile, becomes a professor, a Latin scholar, who...impulsively decides to opt for a traditional arranged marriage; though she is conscious of the 'deadness' of this proposed partnership, she tries to convince herself that the relationship will endow her life with a sense of certainty and direction. Then, against all odds, Hema and Kaushik run into each other in Rome — on the eve of Hema’s departure for her wedding...[The story has] an operatic denouement..."
"In the hands of a less talented writer it’s an ending that might have seemed melodramatic or contrived, but as rendered by Ms. Lahiri it...[is] a testament to her emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer."
I haven't yet read Unaccustomed Earth, but the comparison that this particular plot line brings to mind isn't with opera, but Bollywood (although, as Memsaab points out, they have a lot in common). The bride who, on the eve of her arranged marriage, once again encounters her true love is a Bollywood staple: it features in such films as DDLJ (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). And while the brave heart usually does take the bride, it's not always so. In Devdas (2002) the arranged marriage proceeds; in Veer-Zaara (2004) the couple is separated. And in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998) the meeting with the lover occurs after the arranged marriage, with an unexpected result.

Perhaps Kakutani thought that invoking Bollywood in a review of an Indian-American writer's work would be a cliché. And ordinarily I might agree; however, in this case it seems that Lahiri herself is explicitly making the connection. I'll post again once I have a chance to read Unaccustomed Earth.

(Apologies to those who read the first version of this post, but I came to feel that both Kakutani and I gave too much away. The above is a version edited to avoid revealing the endings of both Lahiri's story and the films.)