Speaking of Music: Alex Ross’s 20th Century


Alex Ross. (Photo by David Michalek.)

My subtitle for Alex Ross’s addictive encyclopedia The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century would be: How the headquarters of musical composition moved from Vienna to Los Angeles?

From the old home address of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms to its new home in and around Hollywood: home, that is, of the refugee modernists Stravinsky and Schoenberg and of course the movie business and the film score. Name your monument from Bernard Herrmann’s themes for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and the great Hitchcocks, to Tan Dun’s for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Actually, the big-picture outline in my own amateur ears is different — more Vienna to New Orleans and Havana. Or: how the Second Viennese School after Schoenberg, Webern and Berg petered out in unlistenable, elitist theory, and all the world’s music was recharged by Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms, suffering, triumph, spirituality and social consciousness. The story in my head is not so much Mahler to John Williams, say, as Bartok to Charlie Parker and Chucho Valdes. But then, in the words of Oliver Sacks, “what do I know?”

However we listen to the twentieth century, the links (“the glassy chords of Thelonious Monk have a Schoenbergian tinge,” Alex Ross writes) as well as the tensions (Duke Ellington’s polite but firm rejection of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as “Negro opera”) and the often grisly politics (Shostakovich’s stricken waiting for Stalin’s phone calls, Richard Strauss’s abasement before Goebbels and Hitler) are endlessly absorbing. And Alex Ross, the New Yorker‘s music critic and star blogger, is brilliant at the many jobs involved here: interviewing, distilling hundreds of major biographies, and above all: listening to the music and his own heart. Creative convergence is the keynote of Ross’s expectation for the new century, after the fantastic diversifications of the old one:

If you were to listen to [the modern pop artist] Bjork’s “An Echo, A Stain,” in which the singer declaims fragmentary melodies against a soft cluster of choral voices, and then move on to Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle Ayre, where pulsating dance beats underpin multi-ethnic songs of Moorish Spain, you might conclude that Bjork’s was the classical composition and Golijov’s was something else. One possible destination for twenty-first-century music is a final “great fusion”: intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers speaking more or less the same language.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, page 542.


We are lucky to have Osvaldo Golijov in the conversation. Osvaldo is the bubbling embodiment of the new complexity of things. His Passion According to Saint Mark (2000) was my introduction: a Christian meditation in the tradition of the Bach Passions, but with Cuban drummers on the Boston Symphony stage, from a young composer who grew up in Argentina in a Rumanian Jewish family — with a passion for Astor Piazzola’s tangoes and all the demanding dance music of Latin America.

He is famous now for his collaborations (with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the Kronos String Quartet) and for his serial immersion in folk and classical traditions: sephardic, flamenco, gypsy and Arab musics, among others. And as it happens, his first big film score is just out, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. He speaks up here for restoration of the “groove” in so-called classical music — not least because Bach would demand it.

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  • Potter

    Thank you!- can’t wait to hear this.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Excellent show Chris and guests. I would like to hear even more about the blossoming and integration of electronic/computational/connectivity processing power into composition, music, etc.; a means for extending the vocabulary and possibilities. A cursory search yielded this web site: Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

  • The intro to this podcast was somewhat reminiscent of the seemingly endless musicology debates circling around the internet in the ’80-90s regarding the validity of including “jazz” in the “classical” canon. This was the jazz age of anxiety with post-modernist Winton Marsalis on one extreme, reviving Dixieland, and Miles Davis’ experimentations with hip-hop, tugging at the other. Correspondingly, on the “classical” dimension there was John Williams and Philip Glass – to stay with the more popular noms.

    In retrospect this all seems to be a reemergence of the phenomenon occurring in the early part of the century. As a rekindled interest in the “roots” of music that inspired both Bartók and Stravinsky planed out into alternate dimensions; there was a later, analysis-laden fatigue that left a great rift between composers and their audiences.

    Is this vibrant multi-dimensionalism not a similarly stressful contributor to the peaceful coexistence between listening public and artist? The program laid out a course through music history that has the appearance of a recent merger and acquisition chart. Pity the poor bâtard trying to look up an old chum by naively googling for Ma Bell’s Directory Assistance, but navigating a route through modern music is similarly fraught with, if not peril, then certainly frustration.

    OK. But my oh my doesn’t it just seem that Korngold’s family tree runs rampant as the “Theme” on the program strongly suggests John Williams’ “Star Wars” and the “Adagio” is surely sire to Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays “Always and Forever.” Goligov is quoting Bernstein who is quoting Bartók. There’s some fertile ground being plowed.

  • Potter

    A really nice discussion.

    I’d like to add Miklos Rozsa to the list of composers for film that did outstanding work. In particular I was reminded of my fruitless search for a recording of Rozsa’s music for “Spellbound” the Hitchcock movie- the “Spellbound Concerto” and whereas I could not find it previously lo and behold a centenary boxed edition of his work, new recording, is out this year.

    Let’s not forget Richard Rogers music for the WW2 TV series “Victory at Sea”.

    It’s not so unusual that artists in other mediums, some of the greats, worked ( and work) commercially: Somerset Maugham, William Faulkner, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper come right to mind.

    Speaking spellbound, Golijov at Symphony Hall that night was an unforgettable experience. The music really worked on me, had so many associations, a beautiful soup of associations, including the Jewish music I was raised on as well as the flamenco we have been getting deeply into (related to Jewish/gypsy). Yo-Yo Ma’s cello sounded at one point like horses galloping across the steppes of Asia. I look forward to having a recording of this when it happens but this is the first time that I am feeling that it would be hard to capture the full experience. It’ seemed like the hall itself ( the space) and perhaps the audience in it was essential.

  • Zeke

    I am definitely in agreement that artificial categories (classical, jazz, pop, etc) are pointless and limiting. I’d even go so far as to acknowledge that it’s impossible to draw clear lines between music in any genre the provenance of which is primarily commercial and music composed with integrity of expression: there is good stuff and garbage from both.

    However, the one distinction that I do think must be acknowledged is between music written to be self contained and music written in support of something outside of itself. The purpose of a film score is to enhance the film. The purpose of a military march is to inspire the troops. Even if adapted to a suite, or played out of context, these were not intended to express the composer’s emotion or world view; it is in composed in service to someone else’s.

    More complex would be church music and opera. I know that great religious music can be appreciated and enjoyed by non believers, but I am not sure it can be created by them. Similarly, it would be futile to try to determine whether the score of an opera serves the libretto or vice-versa.

    Thanks for a fascinating discussion. It was interesting to hear Alex Ross and Oswaldo Golijov interact with each other as well as with Chris.

  • rahbuhbuh

    i’m glad nico muhly was mentioned at the end considering Bjork was mentioned with such praise. he worked on her scores


    there was a New York magazine article about him somewhere a few months ago. his solo album “speaks volumes” is quite good, “keep in touch” perhaps the most human thing i’ve heard in a long time.

    interesting that Ross’s book cover design mimicks such a specific portion of the 20th century (early), making it look like the content is trapped before WWII.