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.

Related Content