The Rest is Noise

A while back Mrs W decided we needed to come to grips with modernism and the 20th century. By “we,” she meant the two of us, not the world in general, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea, frankly. That’s another post, probably. We’ve been doing our part, I have to say, but more Mrs W than me—although I did have great fun reading Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris’s wonderful look at English art and literature in the inter-war period. We’ve got a reading list, and of course the best museums in the world at our fingertips, so we’re not exactly lacking for resources here. And then, at the Exaudi madrigal concert we attended a couple of months ago, she, and therefore we, decided we needed to come to grips with 20th century music. Just what is Schoenberg all about, anyway? I sang a cute Christmas song by him once years ago, but really, I have no idea, and I listen to lots of music.

So she went and picked up the Kindle version of Andrew Ross’s The Rest is Noise, published to a whole lot of acclaim in 2011. Ross, who writes about music for The New Yorker, pays a lot of attention to 20th century music, and the book, clocking in at 600 odd pages plus (apparently originally twice that length in manuscript form), covers the ground. So we have that on our Kindles now, and she’s been charging through it, learning quite a lot. “Such an interesting book,” she says. Boy, do I need to start catching up. But how to hear it? Yes, there’s a website devoted to the book, with an audio guide with lots of musical examples amplifying (as it were) Ross’s discussions of, say, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Berg, the influence of expatriate American black musicians and composers on European music in the early part of the century, whatever Ross chooses to write about. (Ross’s blog is a wonder—how does he know so much?)

Well, all of this apparently struck someone at South Bank as a nifty idea, because starting tomorrow is a year-long excursion into 20th century music titled The Rest is Noise, which is appropriate, since it’s based on Ross’s book. Things kick off with some discussions and interviews at South Bank during the day, and the concerts begin tomorrow evening, with the first program being Richard Strauss’ Salome, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and various songs and other works. Edmund de Waal makes an appearance as well. Sunday follows with more talks, and then a concert of piano music by Berg, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Janacek, followed by another concert in the evening titled Zeitgeist: Riot in Vienna. This one is just Schoenberg. What generated the riot is unclear to me, but I intend to find out (here’s a discussion). The weekend is just packed. And off we go from there.

The first half of the year, through June, ranges from the early 1900s to the Second World War, and is organized into six sections: The Big Bang (the beginning of the century), Who Are We (when everyone rediscovered folk music, especially Bartok), Paris (the 1910s And 1920s), Berlin (1920S and 1030s), America, and Art of Fear (music under Hitler and Stalin). We then pick up in September for the second half, which I won’t even get into at this point, because I have to make sense of the first half first. It will cover some of my favorite music—the Sibelius and Mahler symphonies, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s folk-based orchestra pieces—and a whole lot of stuff I have probably never listened to at all. Webern, for example. Why is Webern important? I have no idea, but I’m about to find out. Along with the concerts themselves will be lots of talks and discussions. This is all long overdue, frankly, and I’m looking forward to all of it. We don’t really have tickets for the whole thing, it just seems that way. I can always sell the car, which we don’t really use anyway. This pretty much locks up our concert-going for the year, probably. Actually, that’s not true at all. Who am I kidding? It just means we’re going to a lot more concerts than we usually would, and eating at home a whole lot less. We’re still going to see Richard Thompson when he comes through in February.

The Economist this week as a good article on the concert series, as well as an interview with Ross, as does The Financial Times. Ross is a busy guy this week, apparently. Whom I hope to get to listen to tomorrow—it depends on when he’s coming in from the US. London airports pretty much closed down today because of the snow, so here’s hoping. And Andrew Stewart over at The Independent has a handy little guide to the levels of difficulty involved in listening—why Stravinsky and Weill are “easy,” for example, and Schoenberg and Boulez are “hard.” Intuitively, I have a feeling about this, but it’s based on really limited listening—and I could hardly explain it to someone. More generally, here’s Gillian Moore, head of Classical Music at South Bank, introducing the festival in today’s Guardian. And Peter Aspden over at The Financial Times has some general comments as well. So we’re looking forward to filling a huge gap in our knowledge base. Expect to see lots of concert—well, I’m not about to call them reviews, because I’m hardly competent in this area. More like concert reflections. This is going to be great. I’m even taking notes.

It’s hard to find a good stamp of Schoenberg—Israel has one, much better than Austria’s, but it doesn’t seem to fit, somehow. Rather, this is a good one from Austria of Gustav Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde is up Wednesday evening.

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