Adorno, Music And The 20th Century?

Few books devoted to so-called ‘high culture’ get much mainstream attention in America; even fewer when the book seeks to explain why classical music is a mirror history for the 20th century. Yet Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” manages to break through. “Steeped though Ross is in Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann, his own style is mercifully free of the ‘implacable imperative of density’ commended by the critic-devil in Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” (a novel that provides a framing parable for the book’s early sections).”

Discordant Melodies for a Fractured Age

There’s no denying (and Ross doesn’t, apparently) that classical music is now a fringe cultural activity. (n.b. we intend to read this but haven’t yet). One reason is that contemporary compositions are difficult for audiences to embrace live. As he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview, classical composers today forget what pop stars know intuitively — a concert is about a physical experience (if not more so) than pure sonic theory. Atonal, discordant compositions create uncomfortable physical reactions in an audience. Another reason, as Ross sees it is:

A lot of 19th century music is about “the adventures of a theme.” You recognize a theme, and then you start to hear its transformation; a second theme comes along, they start to interact, and you hear a story unfolding. Twentieth century music, a lot of it is about music as landscape, music as texture, sonic events one after the other. In a lot of it, rhythm comes into play, as opposed to melody.

The part of Ross’ book that promises to intrigue the Stiftung the most is how he links Modernism and the then predominant form of music, classical, through the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of anti-liberal democratic totalitarianism. One can imagine his passages regarding Richard Strauss’ buckling to Nazi pressure as well as Shostakovich’s efforts to placate Stalin’s demands that he convert music to ‘dialetical materialistic’ pontification. Ross’ critique of the American experience doesn’t seem startling:

That’s kind of a long-standing American disease, this need to define high art as not only something distinct from popular culture but as the opposite of it, the antithesis of it, the overcoming of it. Concert halls were built, from the late 19th century on, as bastions to ward off the vulgar hordes. You enter this space marked out for a sublime experience and not for anything vulgar. While a little earlier American concerts were full of crazy combinations of vaudeville songs, opera arias, string quartets and bands, in the latter part of the 19th century we became really intent on separating these things. It happened again after the Second World War.

But I’m fascinated by the periods where the barriers do break down. The ’20s and ’60s were great periods for that, with unexpected meetings of minds.

Yet it is not just classical music. Rock n roll is also disappearing. For a while, New York City did not even have a rock radio station. The pop culture center is now largely dominated by over amped base beats and rhythm (at 120 beats per minute or even higher). This is Ross’ rhythm in classical composition twisted into something wholly unrecognizable. Ross may write about classical cross over possibilities, yet one must ask to where? Another book, possibly from Greil Marcus or someone else, is needed to explore pop culture 1962-2007 and its parallels with changing American society.

We are reminded of a plaintive complaint by noted musical titan and lyrical sentimentalist Ozzy Osbourne surveying his fellow now fringe heavy metal/thrash metal colleagues, “Where the fuck is the melody?”. Where, indeed.