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 Var