C’mon Everybody: Will Music Bring Us Together?

C’mon Everybody: Will Music Bring Us Together?

Music was an essential—probably the essential—art form of the 1960s. In a way that’s hard for anyone who didn’t live through the decade to grasp, music once reached deep into every facet of existence, from politics to fashion. It seemed destined to maintain a central role in people’s lives forever. Rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. Was its promise of eternal revolution one more false utopia? Today, music has retreated to life’s interstices, as a form of theater, iPod solipsism, an occasion for nostalgia, or an arena for the uninhibited celebration of personal freedom (usually expressed in portrayals of some sexual act or other). What happened?

If there is one writer equipped to answer this question, it is surely Alex Ross. The chief music critic of the New Yorker, Ross has developed a loyal readership, and with reason. He is a musical omnivore, self-consciously exploding categories, ranging from Mozart to punk rock, juxtaposing Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks with Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. Ross is our postmodern music critic. In a 2003 essay that can stand as his personal testament, he says, “I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical.” One had good reason, therefore, to believe that his panoramic new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, would be a major contribution to explaining the puzzles of the contemporary music scene.

In many ways, and on many levels, Ross doesn’t disappoint. He appropriately opens his book in turn-of-the-century Austria, highlighting a resonant moment in music history. The Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salomé in the city of Graz in 1906 was a cultural event of the first order: everyone who was anyone seemed to be there—Puccini, Mahler, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, crowned heads of Europe, possibly a young Adolf Hitler. Thomas Mann even placed the fictional composer of Doctor Faustus in attendance. Still, for all the glamour surrounding it, the performance had an autumnal, last-gasp quality to it, for several now-familiar trends in music were under way. Orchestras of the time were already developing what has since become frozen as the standard concert repertory, beginning in the Baroque, culminating in Beethoven, and trickling out somewhere around Mahler, with an occasional foray into Stravinsky and one or two other “easy” but old-fashioned moderns. Meanwhile, interest was growing in new popular forms such as the cakewalk and two-step, many of them imported from America and frowned upon by the well-bred.

Most crucially, contemporary music that saw itself as developing out of the classical tradition was losing its audience, as concertgoers fled modernist orchestral assaults. Composers found varying solutions to this problem. Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill, to name two, chose to build bridges to the wider public with a...

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