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  • Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer by Josh Epstein
  • Sebastian D. G. Knowles (bio)
Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer, by Josh Epstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. xxxix + 338 pp. $54.95.

It is generally admitted that the opening of the fifth chapter of Howards End is the finest distillation of musical criticism known to man.1 From the ecstasies of Helen Schlegel to the furrowed concentration of her brother Theobald, who lifts his finger to indicate the transitional passage on the drum, E. M. Forster’s reading of the audience reaction to the final two movements of Ludwig von Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a theatrical riot, as carefully orchestrated as the disturbances that accompanied Le Sacre du Printemps three years later.2 “Sublime noise” is Forster’s carefully dismissive term for his chosen score—“It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man” (26)—and it gives Josh Epstein his title. It also gives him an approach that will be, as Forster’s is, encyclopedic, stunningly well-informed, sardonic, elegantly written, and ultimately elusive.

It is very difficult to write coherently about something as fundamentally incoherent as noise. It is even harder when the author admittedly shares Theodor Adorno’s resistance to completeness: “I agree with Adorno that there is something toxic about the worship of wholeness per se” (50).3 Sublime Noise covers a massive terrain, from the Commedia dell’arte to Benjamin Britten’s work for the General Post Office (213–15, 261–62), and has one of the best indexes of any book I have read in the last ten years. Epstein’s text, however, will always be greater in its parts than its sum. There is a rich reading of noise as both a critical slur and a compositional technique in the first part of the twentieth century, leading to the discovery that newspaper doggerel dismissing The Rite of Spring as little more than “bing, bang, bing” was itself set to music as “Three Anti-Modernist Songs” by the American composer Henry Cowell in 1938 (34). This kind of satirical Möbius strip can be fiendishly difficult to untangle, but Epstein has a winning and persuasive voice that makes us happy to take the slippery journey with him. Writers on the space between music and literature are a bit like enthusiastic ski instructors with impenetrable European accents, [End Page 731] taking us on what is potentially an extremely hazardous enterprise and demonstrating, once we are bundled up and comfortable with the equipment, picture-perfect parallel turns that leave us gasping with envy and admiration. Epstein is like that. His turns of phrase, his perfectly planted details, and the sheer speed of his connections are dazzling, but he carves a path that is nearly impossible to follow.

“Noise,” writes Epstein in a magisterial introduction, is “the sound of the artwork coming to grips with the failure of its autonomy from social life” (xv–xvi). This has the impression of a sentence left reddening too long on the coals: is this the failure of the artwork to capture the ragged and discontinuous effects of modern culture or its failure to detach itself from that world? Would it be simpler to say that noise is the sound of “the artwork coming to grips with the failure of its autonomy” or just “the artwork coming to grips with failure?” The overqualification is symptomatic of a fractal mind that distrusts simple declarative sentences as hermeneutically suspect. In one sentence, Richard Wagner is presented as a combination of four contradictions, only one of which is “a Feuerbachian-turned-Schopenhauerian whose Dionysian pessimism drove the early Nietzsche to rapture and the late Nietzsche to despair” (60). In another, we are treated to Edith Sitwell and William Walton’s Façade à la mode:

But by taking on Schoenberg’s commedic imagery and Cocteau’s stage mechanisms, putting them to a rhythmic blend of Stravinsky and music hall, Façade seems to turn Pierrot’s expressionist scream against itself: exposing the social world as a psychological horror show (à la Schoenberg...


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