Why are there so few great novels about music? Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser – it’s a short list. The main reason for this, I think, is that music, because of its abstraction, is the most difficult of all art forms to write about with exactitude and precision. So much music criticism, especially pop music criticism, is reduced to being little more than a stream of adjectival statements. You need a technical vocabulary to write well about music, and too few critics have the necessary vocabulary or have even actually studied the subject.
An exception is Alex Ross, who writes about music with technical precision as well as metaphorical originality. The Rest is Noise is his first book, and it’s nothing less than a history of the twentieth century as told through its music. It begins with an engaging vignette of a performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome in Graz, Austria, in 1906, which was attended by, among others, Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Alban Berg and the young Adolf Hitler. There are essays on the electronic minimalism of Stockhausen, on Messiaen’s wonderful Quartet for the End of Time, on jazz and avant-garde pop. The book is the best kind of cultural history: accessible, imaginative, digressive, surprising and fluently written. It also makes you want to hurry out to the nearest record store to buy some CDs.
Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deserves a wide readership. This great medieval romance has had many translators, including Tolkien, and Armitage has chosen to tell the story in a vigorous modern vernacular, rich in alliteration and north country slang – many of the characters sound as if, like Armitage himself, they are from Huddersfield, Yorkshire. He loses control of the narrative only towards the end, when Sir Gawain has his final encounter with the Green Knight; the language becomes tired and the phrase-making strained.
In preparation for our forthcoming special issue on nature writing (The New Nature Writing, Granta 102, out in the summer), I’ve been rereading one of the classics of the genre, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, first published in 1986. Lopez is, as Robert Macfarlane has written, our ‘most important writer about wilderness’. He has a recondite vocabulary and a spare, precise style; his descriptions of landscape, light and place are distinguished by intimate detail and informed by his expertise as a field biologist.
Photograph by Sam Greenhalgh