Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Es ist vollbracht!

This is Friday's text, of course (St John, 19:30) and perhaps I should not really compare my completion of Alex Ross' 'The Rest is Noise' with Jesus' death on the cross......but it's a fitting set of words.

Got the book around Christmas, was reading something else at the time, read the first half here, there and everywhere,before I left for Georgia, forgot it at home, came back, it was still looking at me and blocking me from other reading, so yesterday on page 363 I set myself a goal to read at least 40 pages a day to finish it by the end of the week (539 pages of text). By last night I had really got into it.... another target fulfilled early.

It's a monumental book, of course. One of the reasons for its putdownability is that it contains lots of little stories about lots and lots and lots of 20th century composers. It must have taken a huge amount of research putting all this together, and really, to fully take in all the information contained in it you would need to read it again and again, or pick up one or two lines of thought and follow them through. It's so rich in information (albeit also anecdotes) that if it were food, it would be close to indigestible. At least the anecdotes lighten it from time to time. It is a fantastic resource for students - it's not in-depth enough for very serious research, but it has a list of over 500 references which can lead the researcher further and further and further. It's certainly my most dog-eared book - apart from the fact that it is falling apart after the first reading.

Like a piece of music it also has its own rhythm (though you could not say that about the pieces of some of the composers such as Feldman). Like in a symphony (that seems to almost be a swear word in the context of this book) you know when the end approaches, so you do in this book, as it approaches the end of a section on a composer - it always describes a piece of music, and the writing changes from the past tense to the present.

In passing it also gives interesting descriptions of life in general in the countries involved ('the social conditions of composing') which I have found quite interesting; for example where he describes how in Nazi Germany the needs of 'the people' always came before the needs of the individual. This is interesting and explains some sayings I hear from time to time ('duty [to the public?] comes before pleasure [for the individual/family?]' - one of the banes of my life).

And yet, and yet....Overgrown path had a debate about the american-centricness of the book, and particularly its thin treatment of British music. While I can think of reasons for having a very short chapter on British music, I was rather surprised by the 7 page description of the plot of the opera 'Peter Grimes' - by far the lengthiest description of anything in this book. Since I know and love the opera, it would have given me opportunity to sing it all the way through - but I really know it well enough not to read the plot again....

Actually the book starts very Europeancentric, then many of the composers involved end up in the US (eg Schoenberg, Hindemith, Adorno - not a composer, but often quoted), and after the war only the US, Germany and France seem to exist (apart from Peter Grimes), with a bit of the Soviet Union (I must be one of the few music bloggers who has actually seen the Armenian Composer's Union Home in Dilijan, Armenia, where Britten worked on pieces for Rostropovich [it was the day of the outbreak of the Iraq war and I was staying in an Armenian army rest-home across the valley]).

Although it covers an increasingly wide range of music including 12-tone music to minimalism, most of even the 'western' world is not included, eg Spain, the Scandinavian countries except Finland, South America (Piazzola does not get a look-in..). Japan and China get a mere glimpse, British music has huge gaps and here he goes on more about homosexuality than anything else, it would seem; German music beyond the Darmstadt summer schools is hardly mentioned, Australia has a very passing mention of Peter Sculthorpe (can't really expect little Lithuania to get a mention).... I would not rely on this book as the ultimate guide to 20th century music, though of course it already provides a wonderful snapshot.

But...'The rest is noise?' All the rest? Doubt it very much.