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‘The Rest Is Noise: the soundtrack of the 20th Century’

This ambitious series of 93 London Southbank concerts throughout 2013 is based on the eponymous 2009 book by Alex Ross. The book is basically a one person ‘Agit Disco’ of classical music throughout the C20th which relates music to its political and social contexts. It shows that classical music is political but it does several other things on the way to maintain this high art form in its tenuous position. It reinforces the canon in a way that reinstates it as a live form that is relevant to and responsive to the state of the world. This is a manoeuvre that has a global resonance when we think that every ‘world city’ must now have its own prestigious concert hall.

Jude Kelly, progressive artistic director of the Southbank has taken on the ambitious task of realising the books scope with the support of her large team. It is, to say the least, an interesting project that I can hardly review in a short space.

One thing I like about it is the way the sections are periods of time with a theme, many of which overlap. So we get: ‘The Rise of Nationalism’ 1900 – 1930; Paris 1910 – 1930 and ‘Berlin 1920 – 1933’.

I guess what is most frustrating is what is kept at bay by the need to maintain a classical ontology. So ‘folk’ is of interest as much it is material for composers, the same with jazz which is related to the Parisian fashion for Le Jazz in the ’20s and then ‘Ellington’ played by BBC concert orchestra. (Berlin) Cabaret is let in because of The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill.

Pop is only allowed a modicum of ‘serious music’ status in the Sixties with the dubious rational that: “It also drew closer to popular music, which was rapidly acquiring a seriousness and depth to rival classical music and an influence to surpass it.” Of course this is only true in terms of discourse. But I’m only reviewing the programme here not the book nor the events which go on until autumn 2013.

At my most cynical it seems like a revision of the classical music canon that brings the frame in which it is understood up to date. Of use to educate young middle class people in the right choices to make when confronted with a survey on taste by some neo-Bourdieuian sociologist. On the other hand I suppose it is a move in the right direction to see music and politics being Okayed for discussion even if it is only amongst the cultured classes.

My suggested reading to accompany the series would be the iconoclast Christopher Small’s 1998 ‘Musicking’ which asks all the right questions.

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