Alex Ross’ prize-winning book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is likely to remain the finest survey of modern music for quite some time. That’s because Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker, seems to have listened to just about everything, read just about everything and thought about both long enough to write what amounts to a socio-biographical history of 20th century music. Or, put another way, it’s a history of the modern world as told through its composers, their music and why they created it.
Admittedly, covering so many artists over so many years in The Rest is Noise, Ross gets cursory some times, skips around a bit. But with the added advantage of a related website (www.therestisnoise.com/audio/) — it’s a free audio companion with samples of all the music he writes about — Ross packs in a tremendous amount of information but also a lot of smarts.
Consider these introductory paragraphs to his discussion of early modern American music, particularly black American music:
Separateness became a source of power; there were other ways to get the message out, other lines of transmission. Black musicians were quick to appropriate technologies that classical music adopted only fitfully. The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s epochal novel Invisible Man sits in his basement with his record player, listening to “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” He says, “Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible….”
To tell the story of American composition in the early twentieth century is to circle around an absent center. The grat African-American orchestral works that Dvorak prophesied are mostly absent, their promise transmuted into jazz. Nonetheless, the landscape teems with interesting life. White composers faced another, far milder kind of prejudice; their very existence was deemed inessential by the Beethoven-besotted concertgoers of the urban centers. They tried many routs around the intractable fact of audience apathy: embracing radical dissonance (Charles Ives, Edgard Varese, Carl Ruggles), radical simplicity (Virgil Thomson), a black-and-white, classical-popular fusion (George Gershwin). For the most part, the identity of the American composer was a kind of nonidentity, an ethnicity of solitude.
Aarold Copland… once pointed out that the job of being an American artists often consists simply in making art possible — which is to say, visible. Every generation as to do the work all over again. Composers perennially lack state support; they lack a broad audience; they lack a centuries-old tradition. For some, this isolation is debilitating, but for others it is liberating, the absence of tradition means freedom from tradition. One way or another, all American composers are invisible men.