Monday, March 10, 2008

Views shared by many involved in new music?


johnsonsrambler has left a new comment on your post "A tale of two continents":

Pliable is right, the criticism on Radio 3 had very little to do with Ross's coverage of British music - this was merely a (cheap) ploy by the presenter to get a debate going, but it wasn't bait that either reviewer rose to. Their own concerns - expressed most forcefully by Morag Grant - were that:

1. The book exhibits a remarkable bias towards American music above all else (more words on Copland than Debussy and Ravel combined is the comparison made - not much British flag waving there!)

2. The musical discussion is extremely thin, with most of the book taken up with personal anecdotes about each composer and very little about the notes they composed

3. There is almost nothing on the last 20 or 30 years of music, despite the book purporting to be a survey of the whole of the 20thC

4. Ross's understanding or recent trends in European music is extremely scant, leading him to make generalisations about German music in particular that have little to do with the music that is performed 'on the ground' as it were (this is the source of the Rumsfeld comparison)

This last point is also expressed in the Observer review Pliable links to:

"But Europe's self-destruction is halted just in time by America. ... The new country has a levelling influence on the deified artists who arrive on tour: Strauss gives a concert in a New York department store, Mahler rides on the subway. It all sounds uncomfortably similar to Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history', with the dialectical opposition between left and right resolved in the triumph of liberal democracy and the market economy.

Commenting on Stravinsky's negotiations with Walt Disney and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, Ross hails the United States as 'a marketplace in which absolutely anything can be bought and sold'. At times, his grand narrative paraphrases the messianic imperialism preached by George W Bush. As Ross sees it, Messiaen brings God back to earth during a tour of America's national parks, whose geological radiance he transcribes in From the Canyons to the Stars; Bartok, having migrated from Budapest to Manhattan, plans his Concerto for Orchestra as a 'parting gift to his adopted country - a portrait of democracy in action'. It's a shame that rich America disregarded the offering and left Bartok to die in misery."

These are views that are shared by many involved in new music who have read Ross's book, and it is good to hear this alternative approach to the book in contrast to the gushing praise that has characterised its reception so far.


Posted by johnsonsrambler to On An Overgrown Path at 12:25 PM

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7 comments:

Pliable said...

I can't help but repeat a comment made on the Sequenza21 thread on this topic:

Comment from Kyle Gann
Time: March 10, 2008, 12:41 am

I’m so tired of the Brits shoving their immature wunderkind composers down our throats, and whining about being left out of music history in general, that I wouldn’t give a flying f**k about any criticism coming from that country.

As for the Germans, after reading the book I wrote Alex a message complimenting the accuracy of his pessimistic assessment of that country’s current activity.


http://www.sequenza21.com/index.php/730

petemaskreplica said...

Any book that casts its net as wide as Alex Ross attempts to is going to come up short somewhere (and why would an American writing for a predominantly American audience not emphasise American composers?). But surely in-depth analysis isn't the point of it? It's (at least this is how I see it) about putting 20th century music into a social context, something frequently lacking in much writing on the subject, and trying to introduce the stuff to a general audience which is at best indifferent, at worst hostile to pretty much anything written after 1911. In fact I think it's in the parts where he starts talking too much about specific works (e.g. Peter Grimes) that the book's at its weakest. If the earlier chapters are more successful in painting a picture of the place composers held in society, maybe that's because later composers have to some extent abdicated that place?

As for the last 20 or 30 years, maybe (to paraphrase Zhou Enlai) it's too soon to tell.

Gotta love Kyle Gann, as ever! We should all take a moment this side of the pond to feel the love.

Pliable said...

What a lot of noise! But it seems to me that both Tim R-J and PMR make fair points, and Tim should be commended for putting forward a view that is very much against the 'wisdom of crowds'.

A cursory bowse through the Index shows the book is not comprehensive - Arvo Pärt receives ten mentions against twenty-six for Morton Feldman. A section on feminism would have usefully balanced the three pages devoted to homosexuality in classical music.

The book is not inclusive and it is anectdotal. (There are also a few small factual errors, e.g. page 94, Granados did not drown 'in the middle of the Atlantic', he drowned 1500 miles away in the English Channel.)

But Alex doesn't claim to have written the definitive history of 20th century music. In fact, in the Preface, he clearly says ' ... there is no attempt to be comprehensive: certain careers stand in for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting room floor.'

Alex may not claim to have written the definitive history. But the American media, critics and bloggers are making the claim instead, which is where things start to go wrong.

Once again hype and spin hijack the true message. Which is sad, because The Rest of Noise is a compelling personal view of twentieth-century music written by a master story-teller. In the end it's the music that matters, and that is the message of the book.

As for Kyle Gann, who needs Donald Rumsfeld?

Ben.H said...

"A cursory bowse [sic] through the Index shows the book is not comprehensive - Arvo Pärt receives ten mentions against twenty-six for Morton Feldman."

Sounds like Ross getting it right to me! But seriously, Feldman died 20 years ago, whereas Pärt... (Zhou Enlai, if you please).

Pliable said...

Many of Pärt's masterpieces were written before the end of the century, e.g. -

Berliner Messe - 1990 rev 1997
Passio - 1982

Rodney Lister said...

Nobody who says that something proves that the United States is a market place in which anything can be bought and sold is making a positive remark about the United States---and anybody who tries to construe it that way is more anxious to think badly of the United States (which there's some justification for doing--especially on that count)and Americans at all costs than to understand what's being said.

One of the points of the middle third of the book is the contrasting of how the issues which are the main ones for composers in the century and in Ross's book--whether the composer is entitled to think that history will justify what he writes whether his contemporaries like it or not or if "old-fashioned" music which those contemporaries might find comprehendible and, maybe, pleasing, is, just because of that, not valid---played out in the US in the 30's as opposed to in Germany or in the Soviet Union. Mostly in the US composers were not dissappeared or executed or officially repressed by the government, but they were controlled and suppressed and comodified (and trivialized) mainly by financial means--even the effects of McCarthy were mostly financial.

Of the problems with the book, I find the presentation of Schoenberg the most important, also of Stravinsky. The organization of the last third of the book also seems to me to be problematic, since rather than interviewing various parts of the story, as he did in the first two parts, Ross presents things much more separately and sequentially, and implies a teleology unlike the one that Schoenberg is supposed to have created, in which the pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow is John Adams. (I have to say that the serious difference between the middle of the Atlantic 1500 miles from the English Channel is lost on me--I suppose more Amero-centrism.
Also, by me, Feldman deserves to be mentioned twice as many times as Part). There's more to be said about this, and I said it in a review that's going to be in the next issue of Tempo.

Henry Holland said...

I’m so tired of the Brits shoving their immature wunderkind composers down our throats

It's not like the UK has a monopoly on overhyped wunderkinds: Jay Greenberg, anyone? A 60 Minutes profile and all that?

So, let's see: Kyle Gann's opinion vs. that of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is obviously in the bag to Norman Lebrecht and those musical Stalinists at the Gramophone because how else would that explain Thomas Ades, for example, being a fixture of concert life here in Los Angeles for at least the last 5 years? Hmmmm....

and whining about being left out of music history in general, that I wouldn’t give a flying f**k about any criticism coming from that country.

Funny, that's how I feel about Kyle Gann!

As for Mr. Ross' book, I never took it to be anything more than a book about his enthusiasms, using the social aspects of music as a scaffolding. He has his likes and dislikes, he wears them on his sleeve and I've read his stuff enough to know that I agree with him on some stuff (Schreker, for example), while some of his other enthusiasms, like his almost-PR-work praise for John Adams, leave me cold. When Adams' A Flowering Tree was premiered in Europe (Vienna, I think), Mr. Ross was quite put out that certain European critics weren't on board the John Adams Is A Genius train.

I listened to the BBC clip at the link provided and I think the reviewers they had on after the interview were consistent with what T R-J pointed out. Mr. Ross' book is now outside of its US cocoon, it's going to take some lumps, especially when (or if) it's translated in to German.