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Festival: Alex Ross Will Get You to Dig Arnold Schönberg

Filed under: New Yorker Festival   Tagged: , , , ,

Alex Ross called his late-Sunday presentation, “The Rest Is Noise: A Multimedia Tour of Twentieth-century Music,” an “improvement” on his book, as he would be able to supplement the points in his narrative with musical excerpts, so that we could actually hear examples of composers’ work along the way.

Make no mistake about it: Ross’s presentation was fabulously successful by almost any set of criteria. Simply put, it’s difficult to imagine a human being better suited to the project of explaining the tortuous path of what we might call “serious” music in the years following 1900 to a lay audience. (I can already hear the objections to that word piling up.) If Ross has any plans to reproduce his presentation elsewhere, I highly recommend catching it; it is an experience sure to benefit any enthusiast of any kind of music. If you enjoy the intentional arrangement of aural tones to achieve an effect in the listener, you will probably enjoy this. Further, it is profoundly inspiring to see the high degrees of passion, engagement, expertise, and erudition that Ross brings to the subject.

I combine fairly low affinity for what is called contemporary music (or classical music for that matter) with a high degree of exposure. Staying in the twentieth century only, I’ve seen operas by Janáček, Korngold, Strauss, Glass, Prokofiev, Harbison, Berg, and Britten, and maybe a couple others I can’t think of right now. In all honesty, most of them had a kind of “Isn’t that impressive!” impact on me without really getting me where I live.

All of which either makes me Ross’s ideal audience member or the worst one imaginable—possibly both. For my part, I got a lot out of the presentation. Ross said that his goal was to “defeat any preconceptions” about twentieth-century music, and there’s no doubt he succeeded in that. To take two examples at random, he was able to present both the forbidding and supposedly melody-free clangor of atonal music and the barren-sounding prospect of minimalism in a way that both was memorable and piqued the interest.

Anyway, enough of my yakking. Whaddaya say? Let’s boogie! —Martin Schneider

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