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The Rest is Noise

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007)

By Marjorie Heins

Most reviews of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, a history of 20th century Western music (for the most part, "serious" or "classical" music) have been admiring if not ecstatic, though few have turned on the theme of politics and art that threads through the central section of the book. Indeed, Ross may not have intended the theme to be so prominent: the word "censorship" is not even in the index.

Yet from the Nazi thugs who shut down the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, in 1930 to Stalin's stony displeasure with what he deemed decadent musical composition and subject matter in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the USSR six years later, the control of artistic expression - in this case, music - by the totalitarian regimes that dominated the middle years of the 20th century in Europe forms a powerful motif in Ross's text.

Add to this the far more subtle and less vicious market censorship in the Western democracies, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sponsorship of Hollywood propaganda films during World War II, post-war McCarthy era attacks on leftist musicians, and the sobering picture of Adolf Hitler gushing over Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner and using their music to bolster the drama and excitement of his psychopathic Nazi regime, and one's head is left spinning from the implications and complications of musical art and politics.

In fact, for this reader, Ross's tome loses much of its narrative drive once politics are left behind: the last few chapters recount one avant-garde experiment after another in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, without any strong unifying theme.

But there's much food for thought in the central part of the book. One wonders if the acquiescence - if not enthusiastic support - on the part of so many German composers for Hitler was the product of moral cowardice, sickening evil, or just too-human nature. ("Thank God," Ross quotes Richard Strauss after Hitler came to power. "Finally a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art.") What made some artists resist or flee, and others become collaborators in the Nazi horrors?

Similarly, in Stalinist Russia, why did Shostakovich refuse to defect to the West - indeed, why did he indulge in numerous abject confessions of counter-revolutionary tendencies - despite threats, repression, imprisonment, or murder of colleagues? And what did the European exiles from Hitler lose - and what gain - from their move to America, often to Hollywood, where they wrote movie soundtracks or obtained teaching jobs at the nation's expanding Cold War universities?

Although Ross offers no answers to these questions, he amply demonstrates the interconnection of art, including musical art, and politics. "Art for art's sake" has little mention here. From Aaron Copland's involvement in the leftist Popular Front of the '30s to early radio companies' eagerness to demonstrate that the medium was operating in the public interest by broadcasting classical music, Ross shows how culture is shaped by political circumstance, even where no commissar of musical correctness is in place.

He also shows how music, like the other arts, builds on its past - an essential element of "fair use" under copyright law but one increasingly endangered by media corporations' efforts to control all copying. Ross tells us that rap music, with its incessant sampling, is the direct grandchild of avant-garde composition in the 1950s. Bob Dylan borrowed "The Times They Are A-Changing" from Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story quotes Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto."

Ross doesn't dwell on the tantalizing relation between music and politics, but he does offer one coda. "The aftermath of Hitler's corrosive love of music is unavoidable," he writes. "Much of subsequent 20th century musical history is a struggle to come to terms with it." Art and politics cannot be separated, he says, but "it is equally false to claim the opposite, that art can somehow be swallowed up in history or irreparably damaged by it. Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves."

December 22, 2007

For more on copyright and fair use, see Will Fair Use Survive? Free Expression in the Age of Copyright Control.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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