Wednesday, 18 March 2009

20th century classical music

I know - are you asleep yet?

That's what I thought. But, three chapters into 'The Rest Is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century', by Alex Ross, I've suddenly started to crave this stuff. (The title alone gets you going, doesn't it?) As a musician, I can just about get some of the musicology - play a chord consisting of two fourths separated by a tritone (F# B C E, big stretch on a guitar, in fact there should be an A at the top) and you're Schoenberg; play a octatonic scale (semitone, tone, semitone, tone etc.) and you sound like Stravinsky; a whole-tone scale, Debussy ... Are you awake yet?

OK, here's Ross on Stravinsky's use of accents, after a considered analysis of their use in The Rite of Spring:
'... Virgil Thompson once explained, the body wants to emphasise the main beat that the stray accents threaten to wipe out. "A silent accent is the strongest of accents ... it forces the body to replace it with a motion." (Think of Bo Diddley's "bomp ba-bomp bomp [oomph!] bomp bomp.") '
Are you getting the picture?

Of course, I thought when I bought the book, that's all very well but I've never really been into this music, he can musicologise all he wants but I haven't got the CDs, so I can't hear what he's on about, so I'm going to glaze over and skip those bits ... But guess what, he's thought of that. So - and this is, I think, revolutionary - there's an accompanying website, here where you can listen to streamed samples of each musical snippet under discussion, and believe me, musician or not you will get the point! Read, listen, read again. I'm only up to Stravinsky, gonna take months to get through the remaining 500 pages ...

But it's not all, or even mostly, like the above. It's a history of the century - its politics, wars, social shifts, economics, fashions - all filtered through its classical music and the biographies of its creators ... I meant the creators of the music, but maybe of the century as well?


  1. Tim, is it OK to listen on the website without reading the book?

    You know me and books....I am old already (and rapidly catching you up)

    But I might just have to look at it for my retirement.

  2. Well, they may or may not know if you've bought the book, surveillance being everywhere, but I doubt they could tell if you've read it, so you're probably safe.

    Seriously, the website does contain quite a lot of supporting commentary, so yes, worth a listen. (What you won't get is the exuberance of the book, which makes me feel wow, I've just got to hear that!)

    Up to Duke Ellington and counting.