Posts Tagged ‘Alex Ross’

Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards music as art

August 18, 2008

Alex Ross in the New Yorker gives some examples and hints:

William Shakespeare felt a certain ambivalence toward music as an art, if his words are any guide to his thoughts. The plays overflow with merry songs, sweet airs, and other healthy-minded sounds, but they also contain many instances of music causing mischief, telling lies, or casting shadows. In “Measure for Measure,” the Duke says of a song, “ ’Tis good,” but adds, “Music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.” The opening line of “Twelfth Night”—“If music be the food of love, play on”—has been quoted and needlepointed ad nauseam, but the lines that follow are usually omitted, on account of their sardonic cast: “Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Hamlet’s dying utterance, “The rest is silence,” gives way to an ironic musical collision: first, Horatio imagines that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and then the stage directions call for a “march within”—the thuggish sound of Fortinbras’s army. You get the sense that Shakespeare, the lord of language, viewed music with narrowed eyes, as if sizing up a rival nation.

Take a look!

Monte Carlo-isation of music!

January 8, 2008

He followed the rules of the Chinese divinatory practice of the I Ching, or Book of changes, which uses random operations to generate any one of sixty-four hexagrams, each describing a different state of mind or being (“force,” “radiance,” and so on). The piano cycle Music of Changes, composed in 1951, depended on the I Ching throughout; successive rolls of the dice determined what sound would be heard, how long it should last, how loud it should be, what tempo should be observed, and how many simultaneous layers of activity should accumulate.

Alex Ross in The rest is noise, discussing a piece of John Cage.

Effect of Beethoven on Lenin, and other musical things!

December 31, 2007

In a conversation with Maxim Gorky, he extolled the power of Beethoven, but added, “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”

That is from Alex Ross’ The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century.

I am half-way through Ross’ book; though the book is good, my unfamiliarity with most of the pieces mentioned in the book is getting in the way of my enjoying the book. For example, here is a description of Richard Strauss’ Salome:

Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.

In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. There’s a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of the irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.

The description in this vein goes on for several more paragraphs. Having heard Salome only once (and, I don’t even remember hearing the other two pieces mentioned above), I have difficulty in enjoying the descriptions as much as I would have loved to. May be, after finishing it, I should go to the Rest is Noise blog, listen to the samples, and get back to reading it once more; it would be even better if I can listen to the complete pieces a few times before getting back to the book. In that sense, I think, this is a reference book for long-term use for novices like me.

Having said that, I still found the book enjoyable for other reasons, since in some of the sections, I can see some similarities to the Indian classical music that I am more used to. Anybody who heard MS sing

நாலுபுரம் நோக்கி நாணி நான்
யாரிங்கு வந்ததென்றேன்
(I looked around on all sides, blushed , and said, “Who are you, who has come here?”)

with a coy sounding change in the pitch level for the word நாணி (blushing), can identify with the observation of Janacek, a Moravian composer:

Melody, he decided, should fit the pitches and rhythms of ordinary speech, sometimes literally. Janacek did research in cafes and other public places, transcribing on music paper the conversations he heard around him. For example, when a student says “Dobry vecer,” or “Good Evening,” to his professor, he employs a falling pattern, a high note followed by three at a lower pitch. When the same student utters the same greeting to a pretty servant girl, the last note is slightly higher than the others, implying coy familiarity.

And, to anybody who is trained in Indian classical, I think the following would also sound very familiar:

He observed the flexible tempo of sung phrases, how they would accelerate in ornamental passages and taper off at the end. He saw how phrases were seldom symmetrical in shape, how a beat or two might be added or subtracted. He savored “bent” notes–shadings above or below the given note–and “wrong” notes that added flavor and bite.

There are descriptions of musicians who try to see music in the everyday sound, which reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Mani Iyer: apparently, once, during his concert, when the whistle of a train sounded, he jumped to that note and sang along with it. Similarly, the experiments of classical musicians with folk tunes, motifs and ways of singing reminded me of Omkarnath Thakur and Kumar Gandharva. Music and musicians, from all over the world, do seem to share a common language, after all!

Alex Ross’ The rest is noise

December 9, 2007

Maud Newton posts an excerpt from the book with this introduction:

When I asked Alex Ross if I could excerpt the epilogue (below) of his eloquent and persuasive The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, he surprised me by saying it was the section he reworked the most. The conclusion follows so perfectly from the history and arguments that precede it, I imagined him sitting down and dashing the finale off in an afternoon. But of course, this is what good writers do: they go over their arguments until the effort doesn’t show.

Take a look!

PS: Here is Tyler Cowen’s recommendation:

If you are only going to buy (and read) ten books on music, ever, this should be one of them.