Music critic and former object of C.C.’s affection, Alex Ross, made an appearance on Charlie Rose Tuesday night, and C.C. was just sober enough to take in a little of the action.
Our suspicions were confirmed, however. It seems that A. Ro., as we affectionately refer to him around here, is kind of the enemy.
Why “the enemy,” you ask?
Well, in terms of history, A. Ro. has it down. He’s done the research. He’s familiar with the materials. He can tell you virtually anything you’d like to know about 20th century classical music. We think he’s a little prone to molding everything into narrative, in fact, the premise of his book, The Rest Is Noise, seems explicitly to be to explain what happened, which ultimately leads to storytelling. Even if this story is based on a lot of evidence, The Rest Is Noise is essentially an effort to rationalize the musical events–and choices composers made–of a century that was largely irrational in its evolution.
(C.C. is reviewing The Rest Is Noise at a snail’s pace. Click here for previous entries.)
But aside from the historical inevitability that Ross tries both to debunk and reinforce (debunk for Schoenberg, reinforce for Reich), the prescriptions he gives for the present and future course of classical music lie at great odds with little old C.C.’s deepest beliefs about art music.
(BTW, was Charlie Rose lit or something? He seemed kinda of out of it, like Liz Taylor out of it. Did you see when he confused Tchaikovsky with Toscanini, and A. Ro. politely didn’t say anything until Rose caught himself and asked for Ross to correct him? Brilliant.)
Anyway, the first comment that really had the hair standing on our neck, was when he claims that a lot of contemporary composers “have given up on the idea of innovation.” It sounds like a sexy, hot-off-the-press hypothesis, but it’s pretty much a total fallacy. Innovation and experimentalism is at the heart of music’s innate will to progress. Even pop music derives its constantly renewing index of sound from technological innovations.
So where does Ross get this idea? My guess is that it comes from his preference for music that is largely eclectic in its aesthetics, music that is in fact backward-looking. John Adams and John Corigliano are two composers he mentions in the interview (even though he’s talking about the presence of their music at a concert Michael Tilson Thomas programmed several years ago, he’s still using them as examples of “the new” in music). One has managed to turn the subtle, introspective language of minimalism into a platform for film-score ready romanticism. And the other is a self-professed (if I recall correctly) leader of the “Neo Romantic” school.
Indeed, if you take the case of these two composers, if you believe that’s where new music is at, you might well develop the idea that aesthetic progress has halted. They are both idly schmaltzy and take almost no real risks.
But Ross seems to also believe in a future–that he outlines in a fleeting moment, so watch out for it–where the lines between classical and jazz and all the other genres will dissolve, leaving, I think what he says is, one vast “continent” of music.
I’ve argued against this idea on various blogs (Post Classic and Sandow). I don’t think the way forward is to be less individual, less bold, less different. Classical music, as art music, has, for better or worse, become an alternative popular music. It serves a specific purpose. In the modern world, to create an alternative is to create art.
(BTW, wasn’t anyone there to straighten out his tie?)