The Talented Mr Ross is in Town

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise
Auckland Writers Festival
Aotea Centre
May 19

Alex Ross, with Bianca Andrew and Stroma
Auckland Town Hall
May 20, then Hamilton (May 21), New Plymouth (May 23), Napier (May 24), Wellington (May 25), Nelson (May 26), Dunedin (May 28), Christchurch (May 30)

In Alex Ross’s book, All The Rest is Noise, he writes about one of the most intriguing concerts of modern music. He notes the avant-garde era may be said to have begun  “on a cold rainy January night in 1941 at Stalag VIII, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany, a group of 300 men congregated together in Barrack 27 to hear some of the most ethereally beautiful music of the 20th century.” The composer was prisoner-of-war Olivier Messiaen, the work Quartet for the End of Time.

Alex Ross’s award-winning book is full of painfully moving stories like this. The author and music critic of The New Yorker tours New Zealand this month, joined by young Wellington mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew and ensemble STROMA, as part of Chamber Music New Zealand’s programme. His book traces the history of the 20th century – the upheaval and tragedy of war, the disruptions of scientific innovation, the flux of societal change, the influences of individual mavericks, all through the lens of music. The concert also offers not so much a history of 20th-century music as a history of the 20th century through its music."

The music of the 20th century was in continuous change, fragmenting into a seemingly disparate and bewildering variety of sounds. Sometimes there is the perception in audiences today that 20th-century music is just noise on first acquaintance – hence, in part, The Rest is Noise. Sometimes it just sounds like pure sonic anarchy. Alex Ross’ gift is that he identifies a whole aspect to it which is the opposite; stating some of the most purely beautiful music was written in the 20th century: Composer John Cage said any noise becomes beautiful if you listen to it intently enough.

Bringing together music and literature, the concert offers a unique opportunity to venture deep into that world, to experience what 20th-century history sounded like. With works by Ravel, Bartok, Ligeti, Boulez, Gillian Whitehead, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, it takes inspiration as diverse as the World War II jazz of Benny Goodman, the words of Martin Luther King and Shakespeare, to mathematical game theory and childhood experience. To illustrate the connections between these works, Ross will weave a narrative through the performance that offers insights into the creation of this music, the composers behind it and their changing world.

An inscription in the score of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time supplies a catastrophic image from the Book of Revelation: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’” By 1941 Messiaen had had enough of music beaten in strict time, of marching one, two, three, four in the war. It was Messiaen’s escape from history, “a leap into an invisible paradise,” Ross suggests. This concert seeks to make the invisible visible, the abstruse accessible, and to inspire the audience to plunge into some of the most innovative and beautiful chamber works of the 20th century.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.