Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Rest is Music, Ho!

It was a curious thing to read simultaneously (one on the bus, one in the bath), both Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise and Constant Lambert's Music Ho! recently. Ross's book won the Guardian First Book award a couple of years ago and since then it has become a sort of knee-jerk reference for anyone writing about the concert music of the twentieth century who doesn't really know very much about it. It is practically impossible to attend a pre-concert talk for any contemporary music these days without hearing a quote from it. Lambert's book, written in 1934 when the prodigious composer-critic was twenty-nine, is a rather more idiosyncratic work upon whom history has been less kind, and remains largely neglected these days.

Yet both books share a great deal in common. Both books present a kind of whither classical music, an occasionally troubled state of the art address, summarising recent developments in the field. Both begin by attempting to iron out or paper over Adorno's great opposition in The Philosophy of Modern Music, between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, by positing some third composer, supposedly prior to both (Ross is just as little convincing in his argument for Strauss's influence on Stravinsky as Lambert is in his contention of Schoenberg as a Debussyist). And both effectively conclude by positing one composer, popular at the time - if rarely exactly populist - though somewhat tame in comparison to many of their contemporaries, as the great white hope for the 'future of music' - for Lambert, it is Sibelius; for Ross, John Adams. Also, both books are as clearly stained by the prevailing prejudices of their day. In the case of Music Ho! it is the creeping racism that leaves him unable to refer to either "American negro music" or even Stravinsky without some word to their supposed "savagery". As for The Rest is Noise, the taint is liberal anti-communism.

One is apt to wonder at all the references to the Faust myth in the first part of Ross's mammoth text. By the second part, a sustained attack on politically motivated music and the political use of music, one need wonder no more. For Ross, any involvement of musicians in the dirty business of politics is a pact with the devil, whether it be the Soviet "art of fear" or the various projects and initiatives associated with the Popular Front ("a shut-in, fanatical world,") and the New Deal in America. So while the Federal Arts Project is patronised as "well-meaning", the Federal Theatre Project is demonised as "too clear about its goals" because its head, Hallie Flanagan, spoke out against "art as a commodity to be purchased by the rich, possessed by the rich" (p. 306).

Throughout this chapter on American music in the thirties and forties, like some sonic HUAC, scarcely a page passes without some loaded reference to a composer's politics. So Ruth Crawford and Charles Seegar "fell under the influence of Communist ideology" (p. 296), while the political commitments of Aaron Copland are referred to in terms of "make believe" (p. 300), "dabblings" (ibid.), and "flirtation" (p. 302), as though it were all just some adolescent phase he was going through before he could emerge as a truly mature artist. The only political gesture on the part of any composer Ross seems to approve of is Stravinsky's addition of a pulse to the final chord of Oedipus Rex on the day after "Little Boy" fell on Hiroshima, supposedly for the sake of "honoring the immense military might of the country of which he was about to become a permanent citizen." (p. 327)

The liberal prejudice of Ross's book affects not just its content, but also its form. For The Rest is Noise presents us with scarcely more than a kind of Lives of the Great Composers of the Twentieth Century, with any real sense of scenes and movements, or of struggle and antipathy, largely papered over. The only struggle, for Ross, is that between the sovereign composer individual and the mass, either in the form of the public or the state. As economics and dialectics are quietly swept under the table, allow me to express the same "unease" at the thought of undergraduates relying on this expressly liberal history of modern music as Ross once expressed towards Susan McClary's Feminine Endings. This last from an article a few years ago where he really lays his conservative cards on the table, concluding that, "An explicitly political understanding of music will ... ultimately narrow music's appeal."

Perhaps the most glaring distinction between The Rest is Noise and Music Ho! is the absolute lack, in the former, of the wit so characteristic of the latter. Lambert ends, for instance, a discussion of the gramophone's "appalling popularity" by concluding that, "The loudspeaker is the streetwalker of music" (p. 173). And so I shall leave you today with a piece of Lambert's own music, albeit filtered through an even greater sonic slut: YouTube. This is from his music to Julien Duvivier's (1948) film of Anna Karenina. Lambert no doubt approached the subject with the same rather dubious exoticism in mind as animated Martin Denny's South Sea fantasies a decade later. The results are equally beguiling.