ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And when I put it to Alex Ross that writing a book about classical music in the 20th century is like writing a book about the New York Yankees of the 1980s and early '90s, that is, writing about something that just ceased to be a dominant force, he insisted the music has held up pretty well. He did concede, though, that other examples of modernism - Picasso's paintings, James Joyce's "Ulysses" - have gained easier acceptance than the music of, say, Arnold Schoenberg.
N: Listening to the Twentieth Century."
And when he came here to talk about his book and the music that it's about, we started with that forbidding Viennese composer whose work doesn't leave you humming on your way out of the concert hall: Arnold Schoenberg.
ALEX ROSS: People tend to be shiver a little bit when the Schoenberg appears on the program, and they might even choose to skip that night on their subscription or arrive late.
SIEGEL: Well, at the risk of making our listeners shiver on their ride home, well, I want to talk - I want you to talk about Schoenberg. I want us to hear a bit of Arnold Schoenberg's music, and for you to explain the role that he played in the evolution of 20th century music.
ROSS: Yes. Well, Schoenberg was the progenitor of what is called atonality, which meant simply that he abandoned most of the harmonies that had been in use for centuries and devised new harmonies of his own, which were sometimes quite frightening to hear and, in other cases, had a sort of a weird impressionistic beauty to them.
Looking back on it now, a piece like "Farben," "Colors" from his "Five Pieces for Orchestra," does have a free-floating beauty that I think people can find their way through rather easily now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: But he's not going to give us a familiar sequence of notes that any 19th century composer would have done for us here.
ROSS: No. He wants to jump off into a totally different sphere. And, you know, frankly, in 1908, 1909, when he came up with this music, he was in a rather disturbed state of mind. He had discovered that, for example, his wife was having an affair. Schoenberg himself contemplated suicide, but he soldiered on and, coincidentally or not, plunged into this absolutely new musical sphere in the same period.
On the first of the orchestral pieces, Schoenberg does assault his audience very directly. And it's music that you can' imagine any thriller, horror movie soundtrack of the last 50 years being written without this as an example.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROSS: You write about a dispute between Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, whom most people, I guess, would know as the man who wrote the music for "The Threepenny Opera" with Bertolt Brecht. And in October 1927, you write Weill wrote an article drawing a pointed contrast between those composers. And I quote, "who, filled with disdain for the public, worked toward the solution of aesthetic problems as if behind closed doors and, on the other hand, those who open up a connection with any kind of public."
ROSS: Yeah. Well, Kurt Weill started out very much as a follower and admirer of Schoenberg. And then in the 1920s in Berlin, he began to see the possibility for a really different kind of music, one that blended the new, popular music with classical tradition. And this debate opened up between him and Schoenberg. Schoenberg saw him as something of an apostate who would betray the cause. And Weill made these statements, more or less, attacking Schoenberg, though not by name. And that debate has gone on through the entire 20th century.
SIEGEL: To what extent is the defining difference of music in the 20th century, the fact that there was recording technology, perhaps not of the highest fidelity at the turn of century, but one could listen to recordings of pieces of music, not have to go to the concert hall to hear them and the challenge to, the composer might be somewhat different as a result?
ROSS: You know, all along, recordings played a very important role in various leaps forward that happened in the 20th century. In the 1920s, jazz records spread around and had a lot of influence. And Stravinsky wrote a couple of pieces where the movements are timed to fit precisely onto 78-RPM sides.
And then after the war, magnetic tape allowed for this - the whole, new electronic avant-garde movement to emerge. Particularly, people became fascinated by loops. If you strung the same piece of music in a tape recorder and let it play over and over again or superimpose two such loops, very interesting patterns would emerge. And that's where minimalism came from. Steve Reich's minimalist revolution began with him playing around with music on a couple of tape recorders.
SIEGEL: Let's listen to a bit of Steve Reich's music. And I want you to explain what, if anything, this owes to the people we've been talking about earlier.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MUSIC FOR 18 MUSICIANS")
ROSS: This is "Music for 18 Musicians" by Steve Reich. Now, just a few degrees of separation between this music from 1976 and the pre-war angst Schoenberg music that we heard previously. It's a question of unexpected influences that happen, when Schoenberg's music migrated to the West Coast of the United States, especially through his student, Webern. Young composers were listening to it, and they perceived all of these hidden patterns, these hidden repetitions. And they reacted to it sort of under the California sun, and they brought all that to the surface. And then Steve Reich takes this idea of repetition and slow change, gradual change and applies it to this masterpiece, "Music for 18 Musicians."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MUSIC FOR 18 MUSICIANS")
ROSS: It takes a long time for the themes to emerge and the patterns to emerge. But it does, by Reich's twists and turns, relate back to some of Schoenberg's original ideas. Reich said he admired Schoenberg when he was young and still admires the music. But it's not just the language that he can use as a contemporary American of the 20th century, nor does it make sense to go back to the 19th century and write like Brahms.
SIEGEL: Why, by the way - perhaps an obvious question - but why, apart from what it would do to one in the eyes of one's classmates at the conservatory, why not write like Brahms? It is - why is it that a composer at the dawning of the 21st century simply could not compose something like Brahms's "Violin Concerto"?
ROSS: Well, I think composers want to find their own voices. They don't want to copy the past. In the same way we wouldn't expect contemporary painters to imitate Rembrandt, we wouldn't expect composers to imitate Beethoven. So the question for composers, the negotiation that they've always had to make is, you know, how do we be new? How do we be original? But at the same time, can we find a language that will be somewhat understandable to a broad audience?
And I think composers like John Adams and Steve Reich and Osvaldo Golijov have actually pulled off that trick. They are writing music that can't be mistaken for anyone else's and yet people can make sense of it at first hearing. And that's kind of a breakthrough that's happened at the end of the 20th century, at the beginning of the 21st.
SIEGEL: Well, Alex Ross, thank you very much for talking with us today.
ROSS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Alex Ross, the author of "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century." You can hear some recordings recommended by Alex Ross at our Web site, npr.org. And we leave you with one of those composers he just mentioned, John Adams. This is a bit of "The Chairman Dances" from his opera, "Nixon in China."