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The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Twentieth Century

Funky Fridays at The Gallery


The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Jai-Pee

This fascinating book by Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, is not a book I would recommend anyone to read from cover to cover – but it is a book I would keep on my shelf in a special place reserved for frequent reference. The book is a kind of excursion through the mish-mash of music in the twentieth century, focusing on classical form but drawing much from other fields of composition during that period; it attempts and succeeds in explaining how many of these sounds, the classical so often dissonant and strange to the ear, evolved from the end of the romantic period where most people’s musical favourites tend to be located.

The book is extremely readable in small chunks – I state this as a gentle warning, since some parts need digesting thoroughly before moving on, rather like eating a gourmet meal. In order to enjoy the whole, one must savour each portion carefully. The sorbet course between main dishes is accessed through the useful appendix of suggested listening – a supplement to the text, and in that respect, our digestion is given time to consolidate while our appetites are further aroused by switching the focus of attention from the eyes to the ears. Yes, I am suggesting reading a portion of the book at a time – select a few pages that appeal to you – then listen to some of the music featured on those pages. You do not have to stick to the suggested listening, helpful though it is – choose your own passages and keep the book handy for reference while the music is playing. Why do I recommend such a method? I guess that many readers are likely to be unfamiliar with much of the music written about in the text. Listening to it and thinking about it in the context of the written word helps understanding. Also, exploring new sounds can be a daunting task. This book is an attempt to help us understand better the ‘noise’ that is twentieth century music, and in order to do so effectively, we might need some kind of additional illustrations which the CD or DVD can provide for us.

At this point it is vital for me to point out that this is an extremely well-written book with a strong academic flavour. The language used is refreshingly ordinary for the most part and the anecdotes range from amusing to fascinating. The text has been thoroughly researched and contains hundreds of cross-references that make this literary and musical excursion a delight. So often, notes in concert programs are either highly erudite in a musical sense, often well above the heads of the average listener, or they are too anecdotal and over-subjective to have intrinsic value. Alex Ross manages to strike the right balance between the two so that we gain a clear insight into how many composers wrote what they did when they did, what the audience and critical reaction was, and how that music has come to influence later composers along the line. For example, the book gives a long explanation of how Richard Strauss’s opera Salome caused a total revolution in musical composition later in the twentieth century, as it set the scene for writing operas on unusual and quite decadent themes with orchestration to match. The story of the so-called ‘scandalous’ play by Oscar Wilde and how the censors demanded large parts be cut out before it was staged in several opera houses worldwide has always been well known to me. Yet I have always and still do believe that it was Strauss’s slightly later opera, Elektra, with its strident chromatic and often dissident chords that caused later composers to embark on all kinds of new ventures, even risks. (Towards the end of his life Strauss heard his opera Elektra performed again after a long gap and exclaimed ‘Did I really write all those awful sounds?’).

But as Alex Ross points out, it is not just the music, but also the historical context that very often determined how it was conceived and what was subsequently written. There are countless examples of how politics or social conditions influenced and affected music – for example, the powerful sway that Stalin exerted on Shostakovich or the fostering of American composers and their music by the Kennedy family in the early sixties. These and countless other examples are useful in helping the reader appreciate better this ‘noise’ that is often associated with modern music. Other contextual examples are also valuable in aiding our understanding, an excellent example being Alex Ross’s excursion into how Olivier Messiaen used birdsongs as inspiration for several of his works.

What I did find lacking, however, was any solid reference to that wonderful outburst of melody, harmony, rhythm and touch of nostalgia that flowered and blossomed on Broadway from the thirties through the sixties in the form of the musical, later to be revived in London’s West End before reappearing on Broadway in the eighties and onwards. This to me was a very important period in the development of musical ideas and sometimes fantasy, originating from light opera or operettas, or in the case of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, from jazz. Instead, the book delves into aspects of heavy rock music and at this point tends to go off at a tangent, even though the diversion is interesting and enjoyable for those of us who also indulged in that kind of music in our youth! But I would argue that the so-called noise in some areas of classical music was more than balanced by the sweeter refrains from Broadway – the ‘sounds of music’ – and as a famous bard once wrote: ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ So, pick up this fascinating book and read on! The book can be obtained quoting ISBN: 0374 249 393. Available online at Amazon. com and Asia Books for 1005 baht.


Funky Fridays at The Gallery

With Ana Gracey & Her Band

Story and Photo by Wyndham Hollis

I used to go to The Gallery three or four years ago and was pleased to find it has since been well refurbished into what must now be one of the best small music venues in town. Parking is a bit limited but possible and there is a guy with a torch who keeps an eye on cars left in the side streets (reassuringly, he even showed up to check out what I was doing when I went back to pick up something I’d forgotten!). He charged me 20 baht when I left but since I knew he’d been working for it I thought it was a deal.

Ana Gracey and Her Band singing funky soul at the Gallery every Friday.

On to the music.... Ana Gracey has been out of town for a while and last Friday’s event was billed as a re-launch of Funky Fridays, as her weekly residency is called. The Gallery ran a three for two drinks promotion and almost all the tables were reserved when I arrived for the start of their set at 9.30.

This was the second time I’ve seen Ana on stage and for my money she has to be one of the strongest vocalists around, with a great range, good timing and from the moment she starts (in this case with Sam Brown’s fabulous “Stop”) you know you’re listening to a solid and experienced performer who isn’t going to let you down. The set lived up to its name – good, down to earth funky soul with a pleasing absence of the kind of self indulgent guitar solos that so often seem to find their way into local performances. Proud Mary, Fever, some James Brown stuff and a really good up tempo version of Summertime featured during the evening. These people rehearse, and it shows.

One thing I thought was a pity was that somehow the publicity had attracted an older crowd (I guess that’s me too) whereas I’m sure that the music and the energy of the show would appeal to a much wider age range. This is the kind of music that you want to dance to, but despite some encouragement from Ana it didn’t quite reach the critical mass that would have had everyone up on their feet. Maybe there’s some way to fix that, but in the meantime this is a weekly gig to note.