Friday, August 01, 2008

The Hills Are Alive...

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Not sure if this is an experience that is universally shared, but...

You know how you experience something that really catches your eye, ear or mind, and suddenly you find yourself gripped in an obsessive need to explore anything and everything related to that original bolt of sensual lightning? You think about it night and day, you scour for more from the creator of that particularly memorable experience, you even lose sleep in order to stay up a bit later than usual in order to have more time to indulge in your explorations.

That's the state I've been in for the past week or so with my music collection---specifically, my (relatively sparse) collection of classical-music recordings.

Yes, I've been bitten by the classical-music bug again after neglecting the genre for what seems like years now, in favor of digging into rock music's past and present. I've been thinking back on some of my previous classical-music experiences---the shocks of discovery and excitement accompanying, for instance, initial, fresh hearings of Beethoven's revolutionary "Eroica" symphony, Mahler's "all-embracing" (his description) symphonic worlds, Bruckner's symphonic cathedrals of sound, Alban Berg's disturbing 12-tone opera Lulu. I've also returned to some of the CDs I have, considering what deserves to go into my iPod or what I might want to purchase in the near future for further explorations.

Most of my reignited interest in classical music probably stems from the sad-but-true fact that I have no life and don't mind sitting in my room in front of my computer for hours on end. (Hey, I'm doing it as I write this, and browsing through the review archives of, the Web site for the British classical-music magazine Gramophone.) Some of it, however, also stems from a book I've been reading recently: The Rest is Noise, a recently published history of 20th-century classical music that balances formal analyses of the music of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Shostakovich, Copland, Stockhausen and many others with valuable historical context and rich biographical detail, all ambitiously wrapped in an amazingly accessible writing style. It's by Alex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, and it has definitely stoked my interest in either revisiting 20th-century works that I've heard, or hearing works I've never heard before. (Ross is even kind enough to provide a useful list of recommended recordings at the end of his book.)

I'm not nearly done with reading it yet, but so far, it's proven to be just as dazzling and fascinating as film blogger Jim Emerson expressed in an entry he wrote on this book months ago (basically, it was through that entry that I became aware of, and interested in reading, Ross's book). The 20th century was one of the most turbulent and troubling times in Western civilization---what with two world wars, threats of nuclear annihilation and assorted other conflicts and atrocities. No surprise, then, that the century produced some of the most unsettling music ever written---unsettling and endlessly fascinating. Sure, the thorny music of the Second Viennese School---Schoenberg, Berg and Webern---may never be a popular choice at any concert, classical or otherwise. This sure ain't your papa's Bach, Mozart or Beethoven---to some, it might all be, well, just noise. By putting these composers and their compositions in proper historical, societal and cultural contexts, however, Alex Ross helps us appreciate why, for example, Schoenberg decided to create his controversial 12-tone technique (a return to formal order mirroring the way Germany tried to return to some kind of order in the 1920s after World War I), or what inspired the infamous fistfights at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Although The Rest Is Noise is principally about 20th-century classical music, it has gotten me thinking a lot more about music in general---music in the abstract if you will.

Abstract? Exactly!

I hope I'm not the only one who feels that music may well be the most mysterious of all the art forms out there. With painting, at least you have an image in front of you to associate with other images, both by other painters or from your own experiences; books have words; films have both. Compared to music, those art forms feel more concrete, or at least have more concrete elements to them. But what do you see when you open up a music score? All staves, notes and foreign-language instructions on a page! It's like a secret code that only the initiated---composers, conductors, soloists, etc.---can access. Obviously, a good conductor can bring that code to life for audiences to hear and perceive---but even then, the ways in which music affects us can be extraordinarily difficult to try to put into words. How does one vividly convey the sense of disorientation at losing your tonal bearings at Wozzeck? The sense of spiritual peace that accompanies the drawn-out coda of Mahler's Ninth Symphony? Unless the piece has a choral setting, you can't necessarily point to any specific lyric or line of dialogue to illustrate the point. (But hey, even lyrics can be tricky, too; Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello may load up their songs with puns and clever wordplay, but do those prosaic virtues totally account for the exhilarating experience to hearing the whirling "Like a Rolling Stone" or the controlled viciousness of "This Year's Girl"? Not entirely, I would say.)

In music, then, it seems to me that it's almost entirely about how it affects you on a gut level. Not that novels, poetry or cinema don't also hit you on a primal level, but music's effects have always struck me as the much more elusive---and thus maybe the most fascinating---art of all in how it achieves those effects. Notes on a page certainly won't reveal too much, at least to the layperson. (How did conducting geniuses like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein learn and absorb scores? Just by looking at them? That is talent right there.)

I don't really have much more to add to this subject at this time, but it's been on my mind a lot lately, so I figured I'd put it in words. Words---at least words are something I know how to use to express myself!

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