Saturday, March 8, 2008

Let the Noise Rest

Minutes ago, I finally finished reading Alex Ross's magnificent The Rest is Noise. I'd started back in the late Fall, managed to lose my copy for several months, found it when I'd given up looking and - well, it's all over but the silence now. There are way too many things to say about this book for one blog post, but for now I'll mention two:

1. Ross writes so beautifully and convincingly about what music sounds like that he manages to make almost every work he discusses sound fantastic. Of course, "sound" is a funny word in that context, because the book is silent (although he has put up this excellent resource). This is why writing about music is such a tricky thing, and I envy him the ease with which he does it. On the other hand, by the end I start to get skeptical. I'll admit I don't know very well a lot of the avant-garde composers that populate the last couple of hundred pages; Ross makes me want to hear almost all of them, but I doubt they all sound as good as his writing suggests. In more than a few cases, my ears have already told me something different. I think he could find words to make just about any organization of noise sound like a masterpiece, and it's probably true that the human mind can make sense of out of just about anything if so inclined. But if that's the case, we don't really have much need for composers anyway. [I'm not pretending the preceding paragraph is particularly fair or well-argued yet - just initial thoughts.]

2. Just as watching the Bourne movies had me feeling like a superspy, I think reading about Cage, Stockhausen et al triggered my inner avant-garde, as evidenced by the little soundtrack to this video I posted yesterday. Since I had written that seeing the newly reconstructed images of Bach's face produced a sort of natural cognitive dissonance in the absence of wig/dresscoat, I wanted to communicate that musically while morphing this image back into a more familiar context. My goal was to phase in Brandenburg #5 from unrecognizably garbled to crystal clear. I didn't really have great distortion tools on hand, but I ended up enjoying the bending of Bach into something eerie and distant as much as I enjoyed the video editing - it felt like a truly creative process, setting up this time-travelling haze that suggests cognitive dissonance, as the familiar is shrouded in mystery. And, as I've suggested happens with Ross, I have probably wildly oversold the merits of this little creation. Now it's off to write a symphony for toothbrush, alarm clock, and ungraded papers.

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