The Rest Should Have Been Noise
I didn’t attend Alex Ross’ talk inspired by his upcoming book on 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, at On the Boards, but I have perused his playlist, which looks passable. Alas, Ross falters where most classical music writers do, which is in the second half of the 20th century.
First, the glaring omissions. One of the Slog commentariat correctly noted that Ross missed La Monte Young, the originator of what was later called Minimalism (think Riley, Reich, Glass, Adams, et al.). Other obvious absences include the most inventive orchestrator and composer of the second half of the 20th century, George Crumb, as well as Mauricio Kagel, who employs parody, performance art, and new instruments in marvelous pieces like 1898 and Phonophonie.
Ross also omitted Scelsi, who is much more than what Feldman described as "the Charles Ives of Italy." Scelsi's unusual approach to composing - sometimes performing into a tape recorder and having the results transcribed helps account for the vital nature of his music. Also MIA is Luigi Nono; best known for his political pieces from the 1960s and early 70s, Nono's startlingly near-silent late works like Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, anticipated and undoubtedly influenced (along with Morton Feldman) the lowercase sound movement which blossomed in the 1990s. Oh, and where's Gustav Mahler, one of the great symphonists of the 20th century?
To make room, I would have culled second-raters like Milhaud, Britten, and Shostakovich as well as tightened up the predictable pop culture picks or replaced 'em with bolder stuff: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and James Brown's elephantine collage I'm Paying Taxes What Am I Buying? I wonder if Ross played Jr. Walker & The All Stars' Shotgun to explore the shared sonic trajectory of pop music, trance, and Minimalism; if so, I would have cued up the full 10 minute version of James Brown's aptly titled Doing it to Death instead.
Then, the odd choices. Why play Varese's Arcana, which is so clearly derivative of Stravinsky and not the much more radical Ionisation? And hooray for Conlon Nancarrow, but why resort to the relatively tame Study No. 3a? I would have liked to see more British Minimalists (Fitkin, Martland), French Spectralists, (OK, Grisey is on the list, but no Murail or Horatiu Radulescu?), astringent yet compelling academics (I'm thinking of Roger Sessions and Roberto Gerhard), the New Complexity (Ferneyhough, Dillon, Dench), and some unclassifiables like Lucia Dlugoszewski and Iancu Dumitrescu, but that's just me.
There are a few howlers too, such as the Abaddo recording of Stockhausen's Gruppen (lambasted by the composer as filled with "...wrong notes, wrong instruments, and wrong tempi"). Why not play the composer-sanctioned (and reissued) recording on Stockhausen Verlag? I cringe at seeing the overrated Boulez recording of the Rite of Spring on the list; I prefer Craft on Naxos or the old Markevitch recording on EMI done at Abbey Road.
Most significantly, Ross misses the boat on electronic music. It's fine to trot out the usual early works - excepting the Hindemith, all copped from OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music - but there is much more to the field than the four feeble examples, three of which are from the late 1940s and 1950s (Schaeffer, Eimert, Cage) and one from the 1960s (Reich). What about masterpieces such as Stockhausen's Hymnen (1967), Morton Subotnick's Touch (1969), Trevor Wishart's Red Bird (1977), Paul Lansky's Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion (1978), and Barry Truax's Riverrun (1986)?
I won't even begin to grouse about the absence of poésie sonore (think Henri Chopin), sound scuplture (Harry Bertoia, Len Lye, Trimpin), and invented instruments (Tom Nunn, Ellen Fullman, et al.)
Anyway, until recently electronic music has served as a kind of shadow cabinet to acoustic music. In my ears, four major movements in electronic music account for the lion's share of innovation in Western music since the mid-1980s: Plunderphonics, noise, lowercase sound, and phonography have all inspired new ways of listening, instigated new techniques of composing, and opened up new vistas to composers shut out of the tight, often closed circuit of contemporary concert music.
postscript: Some definitions
Coined by John Oswald, plunderphonics entails the use of identifiable snippets, segments and/or sections of pop music recordings as the sole source material of a composition. Check out: James Tenney's Blue Suede (1961), Jon Appleton's Chef d'oeuvre (1967), Richard Trythall's Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis (1975), David Mahler's King of Angels (1977), and Luc Ferrari's Strathoven (1985). Oswald has making plunderphonics since the early 1970s, but got the ball rolling in the late 1980s with his plunderphonics EP. There's also the mythical "Rolling Stones Collage" (1966) of Claudio San Yon Pan, but I have yet to locate a recording. I do have a rare recording of John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 5, composed in 1952, which randomly mixes 42 LPs, but my basement flooded and it's tucked somewhere safely (I hope!) in a box. Also investigate other makers like Wobbly (especially his Wild Why disc), Evolution Control Committee, Negativland.
Noise generally refers to a continuous broadband sonic assault generated by electronic devices such as pedals and amplifiers sometimes coupled with nonstandard vocal and instrumental techniques. The volume swerves from infinite quiet to (more often) the threshold of pain and beyond. Ur-examples: Xenakis' Bohor (1962), Herbert Brun's Futitlity 1964 (1964), Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music (1975). The early 20th century has the three As: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern; it's a gross oversimplification, but I started with the three Ms of Noise: Merzbow, Masonna, and the late MSBR.
Coined by Steve Roden, lowercase sound aspires to spare, quiet, discreet sounds wafting athwart the threshold of audibility. Practioners include Steve Roden (Forms of Paper), Bernhard Gunter (Impossible Grey), Franciso Lopez, and many others.
Phonography is a successor to soundscape composition, in which field recordings constitute the majority of the material and may be gently layered, or overtly fused polyphonically, or obviously sequenced and processed back in the studio into a finished work. Phonography does not always conform to established, commercially-driven ideas of recording "quality," technique, "fidelity," and subject matter: waterworks and plumbing, close-up recordings that transcend human hearing, and the other ordinary (and extra-ordinary) sounds of daily life ignored or overlooked in most field recordings and soundscape compositions: a popping toaster, creaking bus flaps, etc. Suggested listening: Randy Hostetler: Once Upon a Time; David Dunn: Angels and Insects; Charles Amirkhanian: Pas De Voix; Claude Mathews: dogpoundfoundsound; Annea Lockwood: Delta Run; Peter Cusack: Baikal Ice; Rachel McInturff: By Heart; and mnortham: Breathing Towers.
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