On The Rest Is Noise

I wax judgmental about how much I hate most music writing. Or maybe I think about it more than I actually write about it. Either way, the point is the same: I hate most music writing. The best analogy I’ve managed to supply is that of an old art teacher from my high school. He’d explode at the sight of a hapless freshman dabbing yellow paint in the corner of a sheet of paper; a cornflower eyeball gazing down on a landscape, clumsily smeared. I never had him for art, but a friend with whom I played soccer for years would quote him any time someone complained about the sun being in their eyes or about the heat:

“You can’t paint the sun! It’s just too hot!”

Memory is wonderful. There’s no reason whatsoever for me to remember that phrase: I never had the man for art, nor do I keep in contact with the friend who quoted him so often. I didn’t even remember the phrase until I was writing a year or so ago about this very topic. Our cat pulls toys from the box in the corner of the bedroom where they’re kept, shifting gears and retrieving one so rarely used that we forgot its existence. My brain retrieves information in much the same way, chewing the same idea to bits and then suddenly remembering the sparkling clean novelty buried under the weathered mess.

It’s just too hot!

It shouldn’t surprise me that an idea from visual art translates so readily to another form, but that metaphor is really remarkable. All expression is limited. No visual, verbal, or aural art can ever properly represent the real physical world, but therein lies its strength as well. Words are inadequate to express music in the same way that color can’t capture the extraordinary heat of the sun. When a painter colors their sky, they paint the sun’s impact rather than its actual presence: the rose and tangerine that washes over an ocean as it dips below the waves, the saffron streaming from between clouds, shadows and hues. The best music critics paint around their chosen sun, writing about the people and the venues, the memories, connections, experiences, and associations that the music elicits.

In his book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross represents both extremes. He stares into the sun to the detriment of his work:

“The Symphony is not all frozen architecture [...] And in the raptly contemplative coda, the timpani repeat a four-note pattern over forty-two bars, the quasi-minimalist ostinato creating an almost imperceptible tension with the prevailing meter of three beats to a bar – a bounce of an ethereal, incorporeal kind.”

A writer should trust his audience. Ross manages to swamp one potential audience and patronize the other. An untrained listener will be distracted from the sound by breathlessly scientific terminology that would give Orwell nightmares and a trained listener doesn’t need such a description to count rhythm. But even when his descriptions of sound themselves are more measured, their utility is questionable. He engages in a point by point description of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes that lasts nearly eight pages. By the end, any reader must be left with the obvious question: why not just listen to the opera?

Still, he spends the vast majority of the book on invaluable context of the sort that prompts a listener to listen differently:

“In July 1945, the young English composer Benjamin Britten, who had just scored a triumph in London with his opera Peter Grimes, accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. The two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen and performed for a crowd of former inmates. Stupefied by what he saw, Britten decided to write a cycle of songs on the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the most spiritually scouring poetry he could find. On August 6, he set to music Sonnet 14, which begins, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” Earlier the same day, the first operational atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. There is an eerie coincidence here, for J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the American nuclear program, cherished the same Donne poem, and evidently had it in mind when he gave the site of the first atomic test the name Trinity.”

There’s a blog out there called Marginal Revolution run by Tyler Cowen, an odd but brilliant economics professor from George Mason University. It’s bizarre and fascinating. I’ve heard a number of interviews with Cowen, several of which were on a podcast that always concludes with the host asking the interviewee for three book recommendations. Cowen always refuses to give them and instead recommends “book piles,” a recent one being related to art history. He says that he prefers, rather than reading a book he finds interesting, to read several at a stretch about a topic he finds interesting. He believes there is no better way to understand a time period in a particular place than by reading about the artistic movements therein. The Rest is Noise serves better in that way than it ever could as a book about music. It scours music for the grandiosity, nationalism, nihilism, despair, and intellectualism that defined this century of extremes. In Ross’s defense, I do believe that’s what he intends for his magnum opus, but he could stand to focus less on the notes.

He could stand to stare less at the sun and more at the remarkable hues it casts across his landscape.

Music, WritingPeter Amos