The Rest is Noise

Alex Ross with Bianca Andrew and STROMA 
Chamber Music NZ 
24 May 2018, MTG, Napier 
By Louis Pierard

Well that didn’t hurt . . . much . . .  did it? Contemporary chamber music poses a hefty challenge for most audiences. Even more than half a century since the post-war emersion of modern music, its complexity and dissonance still meet incomprehension and irritation.

However, when such music is presented as a chronological tasting session by a key American music critic, it is worth tempting two hours of possible discomfort in the noble quest for enlightenment. At its worst, can it be any more onerous than, say, taking time to read a detailed instruction manual?

New Yorker columnist Ross, whose book The Rest is Noise has helped popularise modern music, joined one of this country’s top chamber ensembles, STROMA, along with splendid Wellington mezzo Bianca Andrew to present 17 items from 14 composers. Bookended with songs by Schoenberg, the programme included works by Ravel, Bartok, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stravinsky, Berio, Xenakis, Saariaho and Lang, as well as compositions by New Zealanders Jenny McLeod and Gillian Whitehead.

Ross  says “some of the most ethereally beautiful music of the past century” was first heard on a brutally cold January might  in 1941 at the Stalag VIIIA POW camp when French captive Olivier Messiaen wrote and performed his ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  Whether all who huddled for mutual warmth in those wartime barracks also divined the music’s “enclaves of secret beauty” is a matter for speculation.  Californian composer John Cage said one can find beauty in anything if one listens intently enough. Should one embrace that self-serving injunction on being woken by the neighbour’s dog?

Musical abstraction, Ross notes, has had a far harder time of finding wide public acceptance than its visual art counterpart. Thousands flock to a Kandinsky exhibition, for example, but there is something about a concert of music by Stockhausen, or even Schoenberg, that demands a very high level of commitment.  While it’s easier to avert one’s gaze or just walk away from a painting on a wall than it is to stop one’s ears when trapped in an auditorium, the sound remains far stranger than the sight, and perhaps it IS just a matter of unfamiliarity.

Appreciation of 20th century dissonance appears to demand a different or under-exercised array of faculties than does conventional fare, in the same way that conceptual art seeks more than that which admires a Giorgione or a Giotto. For my part I am grateful to have come away, not so much with a damascene moment, but with the pleasure having found the subtle resonances in the evocative music of Jenny McLeod to be genuinely appealing after 50 years’ resolute resistance.  Mea culpa.

Thursday’s programme was an ideal sampling of what many find to be largely inaccessible “noise”, and Ross’ explanations of the social and political contexts of the music were very helpful, even if the delivery was a little unprepossessing. STROMA, directed by Hamish McKeich, and Andrew, were first-class, and if ever there were an incentive for those prepared to meet the challenge, there was the potential for such inquiry to be richly rewarded, even if many of the works remained a mystery after the event.  That the auditorium was only half full was therefore a wasted opportunity.

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