Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Missing Signal in THE REST IS NOISE

So the Southbank Centre in launching into a year-long festival called The Rest is Noise, taking the title from Andrew Ross' book. Apparently the idea will be to offer up a year's worth of concerts to follow the contents of the book, beginning with Richard Strauss' Salome and concluding with John Adams' El Niño. While I have made it clear that this book has never particularly excited me, rather than cooking up a new rant of my own, I shall just defer to Rachel Halliburton, who, in writing a preview article about the festival for the Financial Times, described it as an "anecdote-stuffed, intellectually exhilarating romp through 20th-century classical music history." This strikes me as the perfect way to describe Ross, using a turn of phrase shamelessly appropriated by Michel Foucault, as an author without authority.

I suppose the thing that annoys me the most about this particular romp (if not romps in general) is the matter of sins of omission. Last June I wrote a post in which I tried to fill in some important gaps concerned with the impact of "The Rite of Spring" that had eluded Ross' anecdote-laden romp. Today, however, I encounter an issue that would be more serious to anyone trying to use the book as if it were a historical account.

As part of my effort to find CD versions of vinyls I used to value, I recently found the Vox CD release of an old Vox Box featuring the Concord String Quartet. The title was American String Quartets of 1950 – 1970. One thing that impressed me was the accuracy of that title. The earliest work really was composed in 1950, John Cage's "String Quartet in Four Parts;" and the latest was completed in 1970, George Crumb's "Black Angels." The entire span covers nine composers, so I was moved by a prankish urge to see what Ross had to say about each of them.

The bottom line was that he was pretty generous to the New York School: Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman. There was a passing reference to Stefan Wolpe, which was not enough to include his efforts as Feldman's teacher. On the other hand, two of the composers were not mentioned at all: Lejaren Hiller and Jacob Druckman. While I never liked Hiller's work very much, I feel it would be unfair to ignore him for his obsessive efforts to squeeze music out of computers and mathematics. The remaining two composers received passing remarks that hardly represented what they did. Leon Kirchner is mentioned in passing as a twelve-tone composer, which is to ignore a major chunk of his canon. Crumb, on the other hand, is only cited for his appropriating music from the past, as if he were just another version of Lukas Foss.

So I guess those planning a trip to the Southbank Centre now know a bit about what not to expect, should they choose to drop in on the festival there!

1 comment:

Robert Gable said...

Er, Alex Ross.

I'm a fan of the Kirchner string quartets as well as the Cage string quartet. And while I generally like the music of George Crumb, Black Angels is just ok. I assume this is his most popular work.