Book: The Rest Is Noise

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Book:

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Author: Alex Ross
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Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The scandal over modern music has not died down. While paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, shocking musical works from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Alex Ross, the brilliant music critic for The New Yorker, shines a bright light on this secret world, and shows how it has pervaded every corner of twentieth century life.

The Rest Is Noise takes the reader inside the labyrinth of modern sound. It tells of maverick personalities who have resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with the purest beauty or battered them with the purest noise, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. Ross, in this sweeping and dramatic narrative, takes us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. In the tradition of Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, the end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

Reviews

Barnes and Noble

Just as living air-conditioned lives has led us to be simultaneously both less aware and more sensitive to the constant invention of the weather, so has our by now complete immersion in a world of recorded sound altered our perception of the power of music. Certainly when it comes to classical composition, our listening is, generally speaking, less rapt and more impatient; the commodifying of opera, symphony, string quartet, and even the most innovative compositional forms into so many CDs has stripped them of their sense of larger destiny as cultural and historical meaning distilled into fleeting moments of experience in the life of the listener. In this rich, stimulating, and thoroughly satisfying book, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross restores that sense of destiny by “listening to the twentieth century,” leading us from a 1906 performance of Strauss’ Salome (conducted by the composer and attended by Puccini, Mahler, and Schoenberg) to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Attuned to the way musical meaning, though “vague, mutable, and, in the end, deeply personal,” can underscore and even echo the movements of history, Ross puts his agile intelligence, eclectic ear, and superb critical skills to use in enriching our experience of—or, better yet, introducing us to—the works of composers as varied as Stravinsky and Sibelius, Britten and Xenakis. Combining his enviable erudition with a gift for fashioning compelling narrative paths through thorny but exhilarating aesthetic and intellectual terrain, peopled with maverick minds and compelling personalities, Ross has written a fascinating, even exciting book, one that will inform a lifetime’s listening. —James Mustich

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