The Rest Is Noise

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I’m lucky to make it to one New Yorker Festival event per year, so I try to make it a good one. This year I scrambled for a ticket to Alex Ross’s audio-enhanced lecture on the history of music in the 20th century, drawn from his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Ross, the New Yorker‘s classical music critic (a position he’s held for a decade or so, since he was in his late 20s), has written what promises to be a riveting dot-to-dot tour through 20c sound, from Strauss and Schoenberg to Stockhausen and Stevens (that would be Sufjan). It’s partly biographical, partly critical, partly genealogical, partly descriptive, partly geopolitical: “Each chapter cuts a wide swath through a given period, but there is no attempt to be comprehensive: certain careers stand for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor,” he writes in the preface. Sounds very much like our conceptualization for the cultural history we’ve embarked on writing.

I wondered, going into the lecture, how much of it would be New York centered. Was there a plot line to parallel the story of how New York stole the idea of modern art?

Turns out yes and no. New York seems to play some very important cameo roles, but the story begins in Vienna and ends all over planet earth, largely via the Internet. I was especially interested to take a sneak peak, though, at a couple paragraphs on the uptown/downtown divide in the 1950s and 60s and beyond, a topic I take great interest in for the purposes of our course and the book project alike. “Uptown,” Ross writes, following the composer Kyle Gann, included Lincoln Center, Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Columbia, and “other richly endowed institutions.” Downtown was “anti-European, anti-symphonic, anti-operatic.” He elaborates:

“Downtown” as a musical construct dates back to the pioneer days of Edgar Varèse, who took up residence in Greenwich Village and wandered the lower end of Manhattan in search of musical noise. But it really got going after the Second World War, when [John] Cage and [Morton] Feldman unleashed chance in a tenement by the East River. By the late fifties, young Cageans were converging on New York from around the country. One of them, James Tenney of Silver City, New Mexico, moved to New York in 1961, and paid tribute to the city in the pathbreaking computer piece Analog #1, an oceanic surge of sound inspired by the noise of traffic in the Holland Tunnel. When Cage taught a class in experimental composition at the New School, the likes of Jackson Mac Low, Al Hansen, George Brecht, and Dick Higgins, all conceptual troublemakers who went on to co-found the neo-Dada movement Fluxus, were taking notes. In the name of Fluxus, violins were smashed (Nam June Paik’s One for Violin Solo, 1962), pianos were dismantled (Philip Corner’s Piano Activities, 1962), and Stockhausen concerts were picketed (Henry Flynt employed the slogan “STOCKHAUSEN — PATRICIAN ‘THEORIST’ OF WHITE SUPREMACY: GO TO HELL!” in 1964).

The Downtown story picks up a few pages later when the minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, a descendent of the Mormon pioneer prophet Brigham Young, was given a traveling fellowship by Berkeley, “according to legend, to get him out of town. Downtown New York welcomed him.” In California, Young had introduced Terry Riley (in Riley’s words) to “this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest.” Young also (in Ross’s words) “introduced Riley to the postserialist tendencies of marijuana and mescaline.” Not long after his arrival in New York, Young was curating happenings in Yoko Ono’s loft; in 1963 he started working with a Welsh viola player and composer named John Cale. The Downtown dot-to-dots are easy to follow from there to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth.

Ross’s book clocks in at over 600 pages. It’s hands-down going to be my fall bedtime reading. It may even inspire a long overdue trip to Young’s Dream House, still in operation.

Ross’s blog, The Rest Is Noise, is here. You can purchase the book at amazon.com, or at a local independent seller.

You won’t regret watching a video clip of John Cage performing here.