Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

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