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Classical 101

Author Alex Ross and the Avant Guard Movement

ONE AUDIO PIECE (CAN JUST AS EASILY BE DUMPED WITHOUT CHANGING THIS POST)   Dislocations and odd juxtapositions have always been a favorite method of  the avant garde. When someone creates a beautiful form, sure enough, someone else will come along and subvert it (like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa). If it's done in the name of art, some will defend it as surely as others will decry it. Of course, there's more to it than that. In his fascinating chronicle of the changes and upheavals in western music during the 20th century, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," author Alex Ross presents vivid portraits of the artists and movements that shaped the music following what we call the "Romantic" era. In a sweeping narrative,  social and political history all play a part in helping us understand why what we call "classical" music evolved the way it did. The critical disputes between the champions of Wagner and Brahms in the 19th century seem almost mild compared with what was to come. Paris was, as you might expect, one of the major centers  challenging the supremacy of the German Romantic symphonic tradition (the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and his main students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern are another big story all together). Already at the very beginning of the 20th century, composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Erik Satie (none of whom ever wrote a symphony) undermined the idea of traditional structures and harmonies with their creative adaptations and alterations of established forms. That is also a big subject in itself, but then came the First World War. The effects of  "the war to end all wars," in addition to all the destruction and human misery, included widespread disillusionment with the noble idealism of the past. The restlessness and search for novelty that resulted included an interest in and fascination with music from other shores, particularly American jazz and the Latin American music from which jazz borrowed some of its complex and novel rhythms. French composer Darius Milhaud had spent the last years of the war on a diplomatic mission to Brazil and was strongly influenced by the exciting music he heard in Rio de Janeiro.  He subsequently wrote music for a 1920 surrealist ballet called Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof: The Nothing-Doing Bar). The title of this piece, which actually comes from an old Brazilian tango, sums up pretty well the unexpected mixture of elements from European symphonic music and popular and folk traditions to produce radically new music. The surreal imagery was, of course, there in the visual art of the period as well as the expressions of it in dance and theater. Milhaud and his friends, who included Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Germain Tailleferre, Louis Durey, and George Auric came to be called "Les Six," a group of modern composers of various styles who regularly met at a club named Le Boeuf sur le toit in honor of the musical piece. In America, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," his blending of popular and symphonic traditions, was still four years away. By that time, according to Ross, the first great vogue known as le jazz, was winding down in Paris to await the next new thing. The image of "The Ox on the Roof" has all sorts of ironies. One of those is the precariousness of the whole thing. Will it collapse under its own weight, or will it hold together? The blending of diverse forms can create new, exciting art, or it can create kitsch.  Sensitivity, combined with vision and genuine talent will make all the difference. This period in music history is just part of one chapter of "The Rest is Noise." Alex Ross weaves an engrossing story of the major developments in 20th century music. [audio:ox-on-the-roof.mp3]