The Rest is Noise: The Playlist

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-nominated tome, remains one of the most impressive and convincing books on twentieth-century music. I recently finished reading through it a second time (the first was during my undergrad) and instantly fell in love with it all over again. Using cultural history, biography, style history, and analysis (along with a twinge of criticism), Ross pulls together dozens of seemingly disparate threads and weaves together a dazzling historical “quilt” that gracefully charts the development of classical music after 1900. His writing style is also remarkably clear and accessible—something I admire in particular—which makes a potentially complex and “sticky” subject understandable to a wide swath of readers, both music specialists and non-specialists alike.

While working my way through the book, I realized that a Spotify playlist would be the perfect aural complement to Ross’s survey. Below is the fruit of that idea. Going chapter by chapter, more or less in order, I selected about 14.5 hours (!) of musical examples that Ross discusses and/or mentions in The Rest of Noise, beginning with the slinky clarinet phrase that opens Strauss’s Salome and ending with the chugging, minimalist stylings of John Adams’s Nixon in China. Some composers/pieces receive a generous acknowledgment (the playlist highlights seven different selections by Stravinsky, including his entire Rite of Spring), while others only get a brief nod (I only included one selection by Prokofiev, for instance). Still others, sadly, were left on the cutting room floor entirely. (Sorry, Christopher Rouse!) There are also a few selections of my own choosing, including Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch and a movement from Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan. While this playlist can (and should) be enjoyed in tandem with Ross’s book, it can also be listened to on its own—a deep dive into the vast, kaleidoscopic world that is twentieth-century classical music.

(Oh, and here’s a link to purchase Ross’s book for those interested. 10/10 would recommend!)

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.

On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:

James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?

Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.

Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)

While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”

This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.

Funny, but also sadly true. (And sorry, I don’t know who to credit for this image!)

(Side note: any newer works that are programmed statistically tend to be written by white male composers, an issue that is only just starting to be addressed.)

But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”

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Nine Symphonies

In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “If you had to pick nine symphonies—no more, no less—by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.

There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:

  • “You can only pick one symphony per composer.
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.”

As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…

1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour in the 1980s, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…

Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still

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