The Presence of the Past

Those Were the Days

As we waited for Alex Ross to show up to talk about his new book at the Los Angeles Central Library a couple of weeks ago, the hypnotic sounds of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians came over the PA system: one masterpiece filling in for another. Here is Ross on that music: “The seeming stasis of the sound encourages the listener to zero in on seemingly inconsequential details, so that the smallest changes have the force of seismic shocks and something as simple as a bass line going down a half step sends chills up the spine.”

This is the writing of someone who knows how to listen, and the subtitle of Ross’ The Rest Is Noise is “Listening to the Twentieth Century” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30). That particular passage is the best explanation of listening to minimalism in its simplest manifestation that I have ever come across, by all means better than any I have ever attempted. (I must endeavor, difficult as it may be, to avoid a tone of jealousy here, so as not to undermine a friendship that began in 1992, in adjacent seats at the Met during an otherwise forgettable Philip Glass operatic premiere — music, by the way, that Ross more or less disowned in last week’s New Yorker.)

What Ross has done here, with wit and a grace of language that belie the expanse of his task, is to fold last century’s music — all of it: rock & roll, Webern, Ellington, Salome — into a tidily outlined social and political history. The range of his musical vision is his great enabling force; go to his blog, also called “The Rest Is Noise,” all one word, and summon up his huge and magnificent essay from 2004 “I Hate Classical Music” (subtitled “Listen to This”) and follow the evolution of this vision over years. It’s not classical music that he hates, by the way; it’s the need felt by those of pedantic turn of mind to isolate certain kinds of music as “classical” and other kinds of music as not.

Choosing a favorite episode would probably mean writing out the whole book, but some do linger. One is surely the best — and saddest — account to date of why there is no Sibelius Eighth Symphony, and why the aging composer’s musical pen was stilled for the last three decades of his life. Of all the critics outside of Finland who took up the Sibelius cause, none wrote more worshipfully, to the point of actual pestering, than The New York Times’ Olin Downes. In letter after letter, cable and telephone call, Downes maintained a steady importuning to the bedeviled Sibelius on the matter of the Eighth Symphony. Downes even brought his mother into the act, a woman of some persuasive skill, who sent along an eloquent reminder that immortality could only befall composers of Nine Symphonies. In 1927, Downes actually journeyed to Finland in an attempt to exact that hoped-for Eighth Symphony and, of course, accord it a world premiere on American soil. The only result was to add to the old composer’s irritation. For another 15 years, the game went on: a promise, a postponement, another promise. Came World War II, with Finland joining the Nazi cause, and the game was suddenly over.

One other memorable vignette, also a study in decline but with softer lighting, is the Leonard Bernstein summation all critics attempt to write, with varying success. The last four pages of Ross’ Lennie chapter succeed as well as any I’ve seen or tried: a concise rise-and-fall of the New York Philharmonic years, the Broadway years, the “stupefyingly powerful” Mahler advocacy, “freighting [the symphonies] with the themes he should or would have addressed in his own music if only he had the time or the energy or whatever it was that he ultimately lacked.” That’s what I’ve been trying to say, all these years.

18 and Counting

The town of Allendale, in western Michigan, is definitely “not on anyone’s touring schedule, except maybe John Deere,” says Bill Ryan, who heads the new-music ensemble at Grand Valley State University in Allendale. Last year, he and his ensemble were turned on by news that the world was celebrating the 70th birthday of Steve Reich; they decided to take part, and in no small way. The goal they decided upon was Reich’s formidable, hourlong Music for 18 Musicians, a work widely regarded as the masterpiece of “pure” minimalism (no argument here).

To say the least, Ryan’s ensemble was diverse, ranging from some students who had already memorized the score from the 1999 Reich CD to a few students who knew nothing of Reich or his music. “After a month of rehearsals,” says Ryan, “I began to realize that pulling off a good performance was not only possible but well within our grasp.” The next step was a pilgrimage, Ryan and five band members journeying to New York to attend the Reich@70 Festival at Carnegie, solicit coaching from some of Reich’s ensemble members and ask a blessing from the great man himself — all of which transpired. After a dizzying couple of days in New York, which some in the group had never seen, Ryan and his five returned to Grand Valley U., “exponentially enhanced.” The results are clearly audible in the sharp-edged, hugely energized playing on the Grand Valley State Music Ensemble’s new disc, on Innova, of Music for 18. Yes, they actually use 20, and somebody in the Reich band told them that that was okay.

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