Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Noisy Arrival, and certainly most welcome!

Alex Ross is an awkward man. Author of the highly popular music column "The Rest is Noise" for the widely read New Yorker magazine, Ross' demeanour threw me offguard when he silently appeared in the small sunlight music studio on Wednesday, sporting an understated maroon shirt partially obscured with a black jacket that looked as if it had been hung over his shoulders like a coat hanger. Speaking in a reserved voice, his eyes darted constantly, sourcing the regions of his mind for the right words - as he has been doing year after year, sourcing the precarious balance of words, critique, effect and affect. For his build, Ross might have fulfilled the personification or the homonculus reincarnate of Satie's furniture music. Nonetheless, this man has been bravely heralding the eyes and ears of New York concert goers to the sweet and oftern bitterly argued sounds of the 20th Century. His latest book which became available late last year has become an instant bestseller, and has made no silent splash. Ross' project, as one might imagine, is one that is simultaneously Herculean and, if the cynics are right, Sysiphian.

In "The Rest is Noise", Ross attempts no less than a thorough overview of the sonic landscapes which interpenetrate this confusing and intriguing musical domain music hostorians, composers and theorists have come to label the 20th Century. Indeed, Ross' subtitle goes on further to elaborate: "Listening to the 20th Century", and not specifically "20th Century Music". From cover to cover, Ross tracks through an intellectual mosh-pit of cultural, philosophical and historical facts in order to flesh out the social reality of the so-called 20th Century masterpieces, complete with the ever present anecdotal dirt. If nothing, Ross' extensive historical research teaches us that our favourite household names of musical modernity - think Schoenberg, Webern, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky et al - were as human and as flawed as we would have loved to imagine them to be. As expected, Ross' most intriguing passages in "The Rest is Noise" dishes the dirt on the geniuses we so want to marr, covering illicit love affairs, belly-laugh-inducing moments of composerly foppishness, and inter-composer rivalry, all written with clarity, precision and wit that has characterized Ross' New Yorker career.

"The Rest is Noise" is certainly a grand achievement. Although it inevitably falls shy of Richard Taruskin's god-like achievement of the 6-volume Oxford History of Music released not too long before, Ross' widely accessibly writing style and (thank God-) manageable page length makes "The Rest is Noise" perfect for the bookshelf, the music-savvy partner, or for the scintillating read in the bathroom during an unusually long expulsion session. A grand achievement indeed, as Ross claims, it was 7 years in the making, with the author himself seeking reviews from some of the most established musicologists and historians in the field today. One cannot help but notice that Taruskin's own paragraph of endorsement is publically splashed on the back cover, although Ross hinted to the possibility that he did face a severe tongue-lashing from the Wotan of music-writing, and just perhaps the latter scrawled "BULLSHIT!" in one section of a previous manuscript.

However, the most remarkable achievement of "The Rest is Noise" is its simultaneous audacious daring as well as its timeliness. An exhaustive, yet accessible account of the 20th Century has been found wanting as we have delved deeper into the throes of the 21st century. Perhaps Ross is right, in that we have gained enough "temporal distance"to consider the 20th century as a whole, and how it has bled into the phenomenon of musical activity we tend to characterize as postmodern. And yet, Ross makes it deliberately clear that he was not out to set up a metanarrative of the period (as any critical-savvy journalist would immediately step up to say), acknowledging the complex plurality of musical practices, communities and styles that existed, indeed has always existed. Instead, Ross claims that he set the tome up as one might find the best route of navigation on MapQuest or Google; that individual composers or individual musical works served as routemarkers or "gateways" into exploring the vast possibility of narratives emneshed within and without these discrete but abstractly linked communities. And here is where "The Rest is Noise" displays its greatest strength as a publication, where it self-consciously deposes the very effort to radically reconstruct or reify a singular fabric of the 20th Century, priding the act of listening to the field of intellectual and scholarly "noise" rather than the sweet seductive strains of enlightened, rational and simple linearity.

In accordance with certain recent practices of hosting a website for books, Ross has exceeded my expectations by supplying information hungry readers (and listeners) with a virtual, spectral "afterlife" of "The Rest is Noise". Knowledge cannot be confined within the covers alone, and one of the "gateways" into exploring alternative paths of 20th century music appears brilliantly in the accompanying website, which I urge everyone to go visit. In addition to boasting links to Ross' frequent blog musings, Ross went through the extra trouble to make sound clips available on his website for curious listeners who lack the patience to scour alternative resources for music. Indeed, "The Rest is Noise" and its virtual twin may be precisely the new way forward in music history and music education because of its accessibility, and its intrinsic historical openness as a medium of knowledge accretion. As Mr. Ross got up to leave, I rose from my chair and hastened him to sign the book I knew would begin to change, provoke and challenge the way we listen to the 20th century - as well as send a wink to the inconceivable project of contemplating a history of the 21st Century.

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