Friday, February 29, 2008

The Rest Is Noise

Here's a before-I-started-reading-it black light picture of "The Rest Is Noise", Alex Ross' excellent history of 20th Century music. The dust jacket is a brilliant white - so pristine. At first I was afraid to touch it for fear of getting it dirty.

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross - dustjacket blacklight before
But I did. It's a good book about an interesting subject. Read it. Well written, filled with fascinating details, it reveals the often mysterious connections between music and society. The Rest Is Noise is not a book just for musicians. Anyone who's ever wondered why musicians think tritones are important will find it revealing.


The Rest Is Noise tells a long story. It gives an impression of twentieth century music as a musical "river". This noisy river carries us from one important composer to the next. Judging by the number of pages given them, Ross has focused our attention on just a few very important composers. [1]

I have no argument with his picks. The Important are all white males. (Duke Ellington squeaks into the top 35 or so.) There is significant over-representation of Jews and gays. They come from (or move to) Germany, France, Russia or New York, although Finland and England each get one. Ross clearly knows (and says several times) that composers come in other colors, genders and nationalities but these mostly get mere mentions.

I do feel that the subtitle "Listening to the 20th Century" is misleading. A book which really covered the entire history of ALL 20th century music would be very different. It would include all the other "rivers", not just the classical one, which drain into the music ocean. At the end of the century some of those other rivers seem more important to me than the classics. [2]

At the end of the century we have easy access to quantities and varieties of music that would have been simply incomprehensible a century ago. Today anyone can develop familiarity with lots of widely different musics. Our new found ability to teleport anywhere in the musical ocean at the click of an iPod is, in my opinion, the most hopeful part of the story of twentieth century music.

I've wondered before (in this post Rich Critic, Poor Critic; look near the end and in the comments) whether the title The Rest Is Noise means to subtly imply that some music is intrinsically better than other music, either overall or just within the classical sphere. Having now read the entire book I still wonder whether that's the intended subtext of this book.

Bust of Henry Cowell in Stanford Library


The way Ross takes a full century filled with curious musical ideas of quirky musicians and ties them into social and political history of the real world is the book's best part.

Politics - whether between waring nations or waring music theories - has had a profound affect on music. Music has never really had any power to cause change (in spite of what Neil Young says [3]). The Rest Is Noise is filled with stories of composers who reinvent themselves and their music following the winds of the political aesthetics or aesthetic politics.

The middle section of The Rest Is Noise very trenchantly devotes a chapter each to the politicizing of music in Soviet Russia, the United States and Nazi Germany during the 1930's and 40's. [4]

The one politician who most influenced the course of twentieth century music was probably Adolph Hitler. He made classical music a weapon of social control in Nazi Germany. [5] After the war the Allies used his own weapon to help denazify the country. [6]

In the 50s a new enemy was agreed upon and the U.S. turned our musical firepower against the Soviets. Secret CIA money funded parts of the European avant-garde during the Cold War. This was supposed to show the rest of the world how the West enjoyed greater freedom. [7] Even later, in the backlash to all that CIA musical ordnance, minimalism took root.

Thanks a lot Adolph. The results of your interest in Wagner operas are still exerting a small effect on musical life today. The story of 20th century music would be a lot different if you had just had the same level of interest as Dubya does now.

Along with politics, Ross often dwells on large scale dramatic works (by which I mean operas; think Salome, Lulu or Peter Grimes). He susses out meaning in the music by deconstructing plot and characters. These are not my personal musical pillars of the century. For me these were the slowest parts of The Rest Is Noise. [8]


Ross's 20th century music narrative breaks down at the end. It's as if the river delta spreads out over so much area that no direction of flow is obvious. This is because we lack the benefit of hindsight. It's not yet certain who will be crowned as the end-of-century classical music heroes. Musical history is filled with forgotten once-famous success stories and deified reanimated living failures. Some contemporary composers will undoubtedly become one or the other.

So, at the end of The Rest Is Noise Ross understandably resorts to musical name dropping, giving us long lists of current well-known composers. I hope he rewrites this ending in about 20 years when there's general agreement over who actually ascends to the pantheon of musical importance. Those are the artists whose musical idea future composers will be forced to deal with.

Will those new composer heroes still be white and male? Probably. Will they be exclusively French, German, Russian or New Yorkers? Possibly. Will the story still exclude all other types of music besides the classical tradition. I hope not. But some things, I fear, never change.

Unknown composer holding his bandoneon

[1] Using a very rough guide (the number of lines - not the number of references - in the index) the top 35 individuals (not all are composers) in The Rest is Noise pantheon are: Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen/Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler/Sergei Prokofiev, Bela Bartok/Jean Sibelius, Kurt Weill, John Cage/Richard Wagner, Alban Berg/Claude Debussy/George Gershwin, Anton Webern/Paul Hindemith/Pierre Boulez, Charles Ives, Bertolt Brecht/Karlheinz Stockhausen/Leonard Bernstein/Virgil Thompson, Adolf Hitler/Gyorgy Ligeti/Josef Stalin/Morton Feldman/Philip Glass/Steve Reich, Duke Ellington/Leos Janacek/Ludwig van Beethoven/Thomas Mann. (The slash indicates a tie.)

[2] To cover everything it would probably take equally large century-spanning essays on jazz (which has become another "classical" music), rock 'n roll, pop music, world music, music theater and musical technology. By technology I mean all manner of recording gadgets, reproduction formats and distribution schemes, from acoustic recording to 8 tracks to Napster. Maybe some of these books already exist.

[3] Click here to read about Neil Young who recently said "I think that the time when music could change the world is past." That time never happened. Famous musicians can delude themselves into thinking they cause change. In Neil Young's time music didn't change anything - it merely followed as the world changed around it. These days, unfortunately, only capitalism and religion have power to cause real change - and not necessarily for the better (all this is in my opinion, of course).

[4] A fine movie about the clash of politics, music and corporate philanthropy during WPA America is Cradle Will Rock by Tim Robbins.

[5] But Hitler really couldn't control jazz music the way he did classical. See the book Different Drummers, Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany by Michael H. Kater.

[6] Another movie to watch: Taking Sides about a U.S. Army officer who has to decide whether Wilhelm Furtwangler deserves to return to his job conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

[7] Read Who Paid The Piper, The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders which deals with many arts not just music. I personally find this story highly amusing: to discover as an adult that the avant-garde composer heroes of my education and early career, whose work contributed heavily to my own aesthetics, were artificially promoted for dubious political reasons far beyond any possible public acceptance of their actual work. No wonder audiences hate 20th century music - it's all a secret government conspiracy. Ha.

[8] In my own mixed musical manifesto (read it here, scroll down) I suggest that real music doesn't have lyrics. I wonder: could an opera be written which has NO lyrics?

[9] I took the picture of the bust of Henry Cowell in the Stanford music library. Cowell would been in the top 50 if I'd extended the list in footnote 1. The other guy is my absolutely favorite 20th century chamber music composer (because his best work easily rivals Bartok or Messiaen) who didn't get a single mention in The Rest Is Noise.

Read The New Yorker and the Hero Composer In Los Angeles, a previous MM post discussing Alex Ross' New Yorker article about Esa-Pekka Salonen. Click here to read how my picture appeared in Ross' blog The Rest Is Noise which has audio samples to accompany the book here.

Noise Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, February 24, 2008

And the Ocker goes to ... me!

I'd like to thank the Academy for this honor. I'd also like to thank my Mother who made me an Ocker by marrying my Dad, and his father who changed his name at Ellis Island.

Even though I won this signal honor because I voted for myself (and I'm the only eligible voter) - the massive free publicity and huge increase in profits is well worth the trouble.

We winners of an Ocker enjoy longer lifespans. And when everyone recognizes us on the street we go into politics (in spite of knowing nothing).

The public certainly seems happy watching the glitz and glamour; they'd better be, because that's all they get.

Oscar Romero Awards
Oscar Mathisen Award
Oscar Peterson Awards
Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award
Oscar Robertson trophy
Oscar Wilde Award
Oscar Wilde Award
Oscar Bruneman Awards
Oscar Foundation National Awards
Oscar Sattelite Communications Achievement Award
l'Oscar de Emballage
Oscar awards for dogs
Oscar de la Hoya
Oscar the grouch
Oscar Straus
Oscar Homolka
Oscar disambiguation
Other Oscars

Ocker Tags: . . . . . .

Saturday, February 23, 2008

30 Second Spots - Laugh Track

Here's Laugh Track featuring vocalist Peter Sellars. This has been up at my MOG blog for over a month which means I'm a month behind in my blogging.

75 seconds - copyright (c) 2008 David Ocker

Somewhere in the left column of Mixed Meters are links to mp3s of my own music. Yes, I'm a failed composer but I continue to write music.

Some of those left-column links have not worked recently because Earthlink, provider of slow intermittent overpriced DSL service, saw fit to discontinue the storage service I was using to provide them to you.

This has now been fixed - no thanks to Earthlink. All links to my music should be functioning. (If you find one that doesn't please let me know.)

I doubt anyone missed access to this music. Here's a list of the reappeared tracks. Remember, there are no excerpts at Mixed Meters: all mp3s are complete, unedited, unexpurgated and incomprehensible. I've provided a tag line for each piece to accentuate your listening incomprehension.

All Music (c) (p) David Ocker
Click titles to listen:

Electronic Pieces

(Remember, I write this stuff on a laptop at Starbucks so it can't be any good.)

  • The Real Jejune Vasectomy (2'41")
    Here is actual Mixed Meters' reader fan art for The Real Jejune Vasectomy provided by Mixed Meters' reader and artist Eric N. Peterson.

    actual Mixed Meters' reader fan art for The Real Jejune Vasectomy provided by Mixed Meters' reader Eric N. Peterson.

  • 20 Balls in My Fingers and I'm Not Done Yet (0'34")
    Melody and title both came to me in a dream.

  • Bill Kraft's San Francisco Waltz Toon (1'20")
    AFAIK, Bill has never listened or danced to this music.

  • The Boy Scout Copyright Police (2'53")
    Three 30 Second Spots in one. Inspired by the musical excerpt on the Boy Scout Respect Copyright badge

  • In A Pissy Mood (4'42")
    Pissy music inspired either by pissy cats or pissy people. You pick.

  • The On and Off Topic Blues for Alex (2'48")
    Two related pieces ("On Topic" and "Off Topic") inspired by the desire to avoid a boring composers salon.

  • Thinking With Other People's Words (8'29")
    A meditation on being manipulated by politicians. Vocals by Dub-yah.

  • The Best Thing About Led Zeppelin (4'03")
    Play it loud to understand why Leslie calls this "the scary piece". The title is a trick question - there is NO best thing about Led Zeppelin.

  • Not So Cuckoo Cuckoo (3'31")
    The familiar samba, Tico Tico, Ockerized. I'd like to see someone dance to this music. Ha ha.

  • Jingle Bulls (3'51")
    The familiar Christmas tune, Ockerized.

  • Jungle Bells (3'29")
    The same familiar Christmas tune, Ockerized differently.

  • That's It, No More (0'33")
    Your Host Rex is the vocalist.

  • The Manuscript Ends Abruptly (0'52")
    Based on unfinished Schubert, this piece is dedicated to the memory of the late LA Times music critic Daniel Cariaga.

  • Ancient Clarinet Performances

    David Ocker (age 17) with his father - both clarinetist in the Sioux City Municipal Band

    The first three are live recordings from my New Music America '85 recital.

  • The Allegro Fourth Movement from the Symphony Number 3 in F Opus 90 by Johannes Brahms by David Ocker (8'51")
    Bass Clarinet Solo - yes, I put my own name in the title.

  • At Sixes and Sevens (4'22")
    Bass Clarinet improvisation

  • Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies (2'26")
    by P.I. Tchaikovsky, arranged and performed by David Ocker on bass clarinet. This was the encore.

  • Voluntary Solitude (13'04")
    A failure at the one attempted live performance, this is a piece from my graduate music studies in 1976 - for clarinet and live electronics. Studio recording.

  • Over 68 minutes of music!! If that's not enough, go to my MOG blog

    I really do like to get comments, preferably positive. Please comment.

    Find other art by Eric N. Peterson here and here and here.

    Ockerized Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Reach for the Sky

    I've been following two Pasadena "photo-a-day" blogs. One is Pasadena Daily Photo. The other is the sky is big in pasadena (yes, written all in lower case)

    I post many pictures of Pasadena also, both here and on Mixed Messages- although I would never consider the ritual of posting something every single day. Whenever I feel like it is my way.

    the sky is big in pasadena included this wide picture of a church steeple shot from Colorado Blvd. facing south. I happen to have several pictures of that same steeple taken from the parking lot facing east. It's a fascinating ornate gothic copper-toned crossless phallus presumptuously reaching for the sky. Probably it inspires shock and awe.

    Church Steeple United Methodist Church Pasadena CAChurch Steeple United Methodist Church Pasadena CA
    Closing in on some details.

    Church Steeple United Methodist Church Pasadena CAChurch Steeple United Methodist Church Pasadena CA
    An Escher-esque corner of the church. I remember playing a concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg in that church in 1974 or 1975. Possibly that was my very first visit to Pasadena.

    Bricks At Angles
    I couldn't resist this parking lot shot. (No, that's not the real license plate number.)
    In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unmanned - Darwin Truth

    View this location in Google Maps. The Street View feature is active for this spot - but not terribly interesting.

    I think this is the church's website.

    Mixed Meters' pictures of Pasadena City Hall.

    Click any picture to enlarge.

    Steeple Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    The Curious Symbology of the Sick Old Clock

    I'm not used to being ill. Right now I've got some untreatable viral crud that
    • makes me cough uncontrollably like a sailor,
    • makes my throat feel like the cats are using it as a scratching box
    • makes snot run unaided out of my nostrils, over my lip and into my mouth.
    "Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest" was the doctor's mantra.

    Sick Old Clock
    Here are pictures of a clock in my office - it's a Micronta Timer, sold by Radio Shack - an electronic on and off box that I've had, oh, since the eighties.

    Sick Old Clock
    I used it to turn on tape recorders and radio receivers automatically at precise times to record radio broadcasts I couldn't otherwise listen to. This was well before the Internet, back when local radio still had the occasional interesting bit.

    Sick Old Clock
    Some time ago Mr. Micronta Timer started displaying time in new, creative ways. These pictures demonstrate the curious symbology if offers me.

    Sick Old Clock
    There's no way to predict the display pattern It still seems to work because the time changes every minute just like a real clock, but it offers no meaning. It has become an abstract artist of temporal display, creating a little visual decoration in its old age with the limited means available to it.

    Sick Old Clock
    This week, the clock also reminds me that, while I will recover from my illness, it won't. Maybe this will prompt me to finally throw it away. Assuming I ever get my normal level of energy back.

    Sick Old Clock
    Notice several other unused relics of '80s office automation in the last picture: a Panasonic electric pencil sharpener and a Technics cassette dubbing deck, both of which still work if I ever care to use them - which, judging by the dust levels, is almost never.

    Sick Old Clock with electric pencil sharpener and cassette dubbing deck

    Sick Old Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .