How I Found My Musical Ground
Notes by Michael Alec Rose
Author of Audible Signs
I wrote Audible Signs (just published by Continuum) for anybody who loves music, for everybody who feel passionately that this love can be investigated but never fully explained, for all who seek (like me) new ways of conversing intelligently about music, new strategies to honor both its exceptional clarity of feeling and its irreducible mystery.
The impetus to compose these “Essays from a Musical Ground” goes back to 1991, when I launched a newsletter called Musings, my way of keeping in musical touch with far-flung friends, some of whom play an active role in Audible Signs (I couldn’t have written the book without them). Musings ran to a single issue. Marriage, commissions for new musical works, parenthood, all intervened. But that essay—Vol. 1, No. 1—haunted me down the years and led to further essays, some for my students at Vanderbilt University, others for concertgoers in Nashville who enjoy grand opera at least as much as the Grand Old Opry. The lone issue of Musings now serves its turn in Audible Signs: it has been revised, expanded, and mounted as one piece of artillery in my fourfold assault (Chapter 4) on Alex Ross’s bestselling book on twentieth-century music, The Rest Is Noise.
The commingling of “Hey Jude,” Beethoven’s Ninth, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet #8 (in Chapters 2 and 3) springs from ongoing conversations over the years with students in my Beethoven and the Beatles course. I started “ Letter to My Daughter” a few years ago, but it was only last winter—as I was finishing the book—that Regina Spektor came into view as an ally of Rembrandt . The other essays in Audible Signs are newly minted, struck with the hot iron of all the great music reverberating between its two covers.
A further word about my argument with Ross, for those readers who (I hope) will have fun reading Chapter 4. I could easily have written at length about the things I enjoy in The Rest Is Noise. Why, then, in Audible Signs have I lodged such a litany of grievances against a book I generally admire? First things first: just as there is no need to have listened to the music I write about in Audible Signs before reading it, it’s not required to read Ross’s book before diving into my disputation with him. What’s at stake here is a principle that drives everything in my book—an idea that motivates all my work, all the more so the music I compose:
We show our love for people and things by paying close attention to them,
by putting them at the center of our imaginative regard and celebrating them in all their complexity. My goal in cataloguing the shortcomings of Ross’s The Rest Is Noise is to encourage both his readers and mine to love more richly the difficult musical repertory he and I are both tackling. Perhaps I have taken my notion of “tackling” a bit too far in my pugnacious attitude towards Ross. Therefore, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to say once again that I remain a faithful—i.e., disputatious—fan of Ross’s writings on music.
I hope you will enjoy Audible Signs in the same spirit!