Friday 17 December 2010

Reading list

My Christmas reading list is rapidly stacking up - I might post it here next week.

On it already are two books by the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. He has followed up his phenomenally popular The Rest is Noise (a history of 20th century music) with Listen to This, a collection of revised essays from the past 10 years, spanning Mozart to Radiohead.

Despite knowing nothing bout music (or potentially because of knowing nothing about music) I love Ross's reviews. It's a sign of masterful writing when you can take the reader along with you, regardless of their level of knowledge. I make a point of seeking out his irregular pieces in the Guardian, which recently included this article, asking why 'we' embrace avant-garde architecture and art, but not music. Ross suggests:

The music profession [in the 20th century] became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces. By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms, the game was fixed against them. Even composers who bent over backwards to accommodate a taste for Romantic tonality encountered scepticism; they could not overcome, except by drastic measures, the disadvantage of being alive.

Museums and galleries took a markedly different approach. In America, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other leading institutions propagandised for modern art. Wealthy patrons embraced some of the most radical new work; dealers whipped up publicity; critics romanticised Pollock and company as go-it-alone heroes. The idea took hold that museums could be sites of intellectual adventure. On a recent trip to MoMA, I was struck by a poster at the entrance: "Belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving . . . unruly, visionary, dramatic, current, provocative, bold . . ."

It feels a little ironic that a music critic is using the art world as a model of tolerance and curiosity, when here in New Zealand I still regularly hear accusations of charlatanism being hurled against McCahon, and the disgraceful debacle over et al's selection for the 2005 Venice Biennale is (in my opinion, anyway) the biggest art-hits-the-headlines story of the century thus far.

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