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Listening to the 20th Century
The Rest is Noise (cover detail).

The Rest is Noise (cover detail).

From our archives
Aired: Friday, October 19, 2007 11-12PM ET

When it comes to the high arts, the 20th century brought abstraction, challenge, even chaos. In the paintings of Picasso, or Rothko, or Jackson Pollock, those hallmarks draw a crowd. In music, they have cleared halls and started riots.

Stravinsky drove them mad. Schoenberg sent them running. Now, celebrated New Yorker critic Alex Ross listens back with history in mind. In fact, he’s telling the century’s history — cultural and political — through its music.

Hitler, Stalin, FDR. Strauss, Shostakovich, Copland. And the Beatles. And Bjork! Up next, On Point: a musical history of the 20th century.

Guest:

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker and author of “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.”

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  • http://www.eselkunst.com Chris Goodwin

    What was the name of the Schoenberg piece featured in this segment, please? It’s wonderful!

  • John Holdren

    When Alex Ross’s name appears in the table of contents of the New Yorker, I turn to his article first. Thanks for playing the selection from the Quartet for the End of Time. When I pull a CD of 20th-century music from my collection to listen to, it’s less likely to be one of the big orchestral works that get most of the attention, but instead a chamber or instrumental piece — for example, not Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony but one of his string quartets. I think that one way into 20th century music is thru these smaller, more intimate works. Maybe Alex can recommend some favorite works and performers?

    John Holdren, Greenwood, Virginia

  • http://www.pnart.com Peter Nelson

    for example, not Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony but one of his string quartets. I think that one way into 20th century music is thru these smaller, more intimate works. Maybe Alex can recommend some favorite works and performers?

    I dunno. I am a big chamber music fan, myself, but when I mention this to others, many people, including college-educated NPR-listening people, often say “what’s chamber music?”. One thing about an orchestral piece is that it’s a format most people are familiar with, even if they’ve never actually been to one.

    I love Shostakovich but I’m not so sure his chamber works are fundamentally different or more accessible than his orchestral works. To me his piano quintet in G minor, Op 57 actually reminds me of his 5th Symphony.

    One of the problems with much 20th century music, in general, is the same as with 20th century poetry and visual art. (my wife is a classical pianist; I’m a painter and poet) It often written for some elite cognoscenti or group of initiates who “get” the concept. And that’s the problem – there’s usually some overintellectualized concept to get. The success of the composer or artist is often measured, not in how the work speaks to us or makes us feel, but whether he successfully executed his concept.

  • http://AndrewSichel.blogspot.com Andrew Sichel

    What a wonderful program and what an informed and articulate man Mr. Ross is.
    His suggestion of a healthy fusion of past and present is very timely.I was so taken with this broadcast that I listened to it a second time. I look forward to reading the book. I’m sure that Mr. Ross discusses in the book the intense study and influence of Indian and in Reich’s case also African music for Riley, Reich. Glass, and Young, I would venture more than pop and jazz which Mr. Ross sited on air along with Psychedlia the latter leading these wonderful musicians east, the eastern influence was at the heart of their innovation along with their awareness of music and art history and the Modernist tradition in which they fall.
    The sixties along with the word liberalism have taken badly unwarranted beatings. As far as the arts are concerned the sixties was the last renascent cauldron for modern art. What has happened since owes as much a debt to the sixties as to the teens and twenties in Europe are accorded.
    Although Reich went west after Cornell and then Julliard it is worth noting that Glass and Young are also both basically east coasters. The concerts Mr. Ross mentioned as influential to The Velvet Underground etc. happened more in NY than out west I believe. In the sixties and seventies New York was as full of Hippies and political radicals as California.
    As the election season heats up it is worth mentioning for younger listeners and voters that Modernism, and the history of significant American “high” art or in this case “classical” music, is, as Mr. Ross referenced with Aaron Copeland, definitely a Left wing or Liberal history. I feel safe in saying that with the exception of the Nazi collaborators mentioned none of the composers discussed in this broadcast would’ve or would be caught dead voting Republican. Let’s not be fooled again! Vote Obama/Biden and maybe our country can get back some of that good old love, peace and happiness.
    Andrew Sichel
    AndrewSichel.blogspot.com

  • James Orleans

    Some wonderful composers too rarely mentioned or performed:

    Ades, Bax, Berg, Bennett (Richard Rodney), Birtwistle, Blomdahl, Baciewicz (sic), Baird, Constant, Carter, Dutilleux, Egge, Fine, Fortner, Gerhard, Genzmer, Hamilton (Iain), Hartmann, Henze, Hindemith, Honegger, Imbrie, Jolivet, Janacek, Krenek, Lindberg, Lutoslawski, Martin, Martinu, Maxwell-Davies, Maw, Mennin, Macmillan, Nigg, Panufnik, Penderecki, Porter (Quincy), Rautavaara, Rochberg, Sessions, Schuman (William), Skalkottas, Sallinen, Shchedrin, Schnittke, Serocki, Szymanowski, Tippett, Turnage, Toch, Urbanner, Wuorinen.

    There really is too much good new music not getting played. Time to make a little room in the repertoire by discontinuing the lesser works by the 18th and 19th Century blokes.

  • Nils Blatz

    Please e-mail to me the title of the piece (something like) “Quartet for All Eternity” It had a sub-title with the name “Jesus Christ” in it.

    Thanks! I very much liked your show on 20th century music — Sept. 5th. Alas, I’m from New York just driving through Vermont.

    Nils Blatz

  • Peter Nelson

    Please e-mail to me the title of the piece (something like) “Quartet for All Eternity” It had a sub-title with the name “Jesus Christ” in it.

    Thanks! I very much liked your show on 20th century music — Sept. 5th. Alas, I’m from New York just driving through Vermont.

    Nils Blatz

    Nils, you didn’t post an email address so I don’t know how you expect us to email you.

    Nonetheless I’m guessing you must be thinking of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen wrote it as a POW of the Germans in WWII. The last movement is entitled “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”.

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