Tuesday 14 June 2011
For many folk I've spoken to, Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise has become a bible of information about 20th (and 21st) century music. It's extremely well-written if necessarily biased towards what the author likes, to judge from what I've dipped in to (what, not a word about Jimmy MacMillan?), but for authenticity it can't beat John Adams's autobiographical journey through the thickets of what he calls 'the partisan orthodoxies and prejudices that dominated my generation'.
Yes, he was there when Boulez ruled with his dogma, 'a technocrat bristling with all the gleaming armaments of his specialized field'. He was bewitched by the freer experimentation of Cage and company: was it any more than 'Dadaist doodling'? Much more, he fairly concedes, but judiciously lists its limitations. He was engaged by the promise of minimalism, describing Reich's early work as 'a sound world that was carefully organized, musically engaging and sensually appealing...To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience'. The cabin'd aspect of minimalism, Glass's static brand especially, is then tactfully touched upon.
But Adams was also beguiled by the best of the popular music of his time, by the revelation and the long-term promise of Wagner when driving along listening to Act 1 of Götterdämmerung, and later by Peter Sellars's eclectic knowledge of musics outside the 'western hegemony'. The book also offers lucid clarification of the issues behind his operas, from Nixon and Mao in '72 through the Palestinian problem to a terrific exposition of nuclear power and the diverse branches to the basic Indian spiritual fairy-tale of A Flowering Tree.
If you don't think you have time to read the entire book, the short last chapter, 'Garage Sale of the Mind', is the best ever precis I've read of the crossroads at which we now stand, the notion that complexity isn't necessarily progress but that easy promise isn't the solution either. This fits with the swivels of his own all-embracing musical language: the other week I reeled again at the daring, gnarly counterpoint of his Chamber Symphony in a dazzling performance by the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon, and loved going back and listening to the CD again.
It was looking up what Adams had to say about the Chamber Symphony as a result that finally led me to read the book from cover to cover.
I realise how many of the scores I still need to catch up with: being a bit of a sucker for stylish CD presentation - which in this case sometimes features wonderful nature studies by the composer's photographer wife, Deborah O'Grady - I have to update with the Nonesuch releases following on from the Earbox, including Son of Chamber Symphony. I'm not saying every work is a masterpiece, but it's always engaging, never dull. The world is a much better place for Adams's music.And the wordsmith continues to do good with an inspirational speech to students, reproduced in full on his blog.
Anyway, I'm proud of my Earbox, which I got the great, easygoing man to sign along with my '88 Edinburgh Nixon in China programme after we'd done a fun talk before one of his BBCSO concerts. And I'm proud, too, that he said to the admin as we came off stage: 'he's really good, you should ask us to do this again'. But that's blowing my own trumpet in the manner of some of my esteemed but not very modest fellow-bloggers...