Once composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and, later, Cage, Stockhausen and Boulez denounced traditional forms of rhythm and harmony, the search for what should replace them incorporated everything from coin-tossing to complex calculations with prime numbers. That’s why – as the Southbank Centre opens its year-long festival The Rest Is Noise inspired by Ross’s book – I find myself seeking a mathematician as a guide.
Not that Marcus du Sautoy – who, as well as being a professor of mathematics at Oxford university, has succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science – can adequately be summed up by the word “mathematician”. For a start there’s the hurricane force of his personality (journalists have a lot of fun talking about his bright clothes), and the range of his ambition (theatre is a passion, as is the desire to be a chef). We meet at his home in Stamford Hill in north London and, as he waves his arms around talking about everything from turn-of-the-century polymath Poincaré to palindromes, his enthusiasm for music makes him resemble a follically challenged Simon Rattle.
I talk to du Sautoy about the riots that greeted Schoenberg’s work. Why did atonal music disturb people so much? “I think musicians wanted to upset audiences,” he replies. “They were breaking the complacency of previous music – people were expecting to reach one destination through harmony or rhythm, and suddenly they were pulled away to somewhere completely different. What’s so exciting for me is how different that soundscape was – it was a time of complete change. In some ways one does have to go through the whole gamut of history to understand 20th-century music.”
Luckily for wannabe contemporary music aficionados, the Southbank Centre is providing historical context through lectures, films and themed events: from Gertrude Stein to the imagery of the swastika, from the invention of the recording cylinder to racial segregation in America. The first section of the festival, Here Comes the 20th Century, looks at how the complacency du Sautoy describes – not just in music but in other aspects of western culture – was being dismantled. Talks will encompass the suffragette movement and the invention of radio. Ross himself lectures this weekend on the mood in Vienna as composers strove for a language that would distance them from their bourgeois predecessors. And du Sautoy is lecturing on Saturday on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, looking at how the resulting shifts in perception of time and space impacted on the work of composers such as Messiaen.
“This became a time when people were asking a lot of questions about our place in the universe,” he declares.
“Initially, I think that Henri Poincaré [the polymath whose book Science and Hypothesis inspired both Einstein and Picasso] had a bigger influence on the artistic world, because he was writing for them. I suspect that comes from Poincaré. With Messiaen, in Quartet for the End of Time, you have a sense of never-ending time that relates to Einstein but you have to be careful about saying how direct that relationship is.”
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"Celui qui ne participe pas à la lutte participe à la défaite" (Brecht)
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