The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music...

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Title:The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Author:Alex Ross
Rating:
ISBN:0374249393
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:640 pages

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century Reviews

  • Tosh
    Nov 18, 2007

    Alex Ross' wonderful trip to the 20th Century via the world of classical music and it's composers. As I mentioned I had very little knowledge of classical music - especially modern. I knew Glass, Reich, Satie, but overall this is pretty much a new world music wise.

    Saying that this is also the history of cultural life in the 20th Century. The best chapeters deal with Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia and how they used music -and how it affected the composers of that place and time.

    In a distant way

    Alex Ross' wonderful trip to the 20th Century via the world of classical music and it's composers. As I mentioned I had very little knowledge of classical music - especially modern. I knew Glass, Reich, Satie, but overall this is pretty much a new world music wise.

    Saying that this is also the history of cultural life in the 20th Century. The best chapeters deal with Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia and how they used music -and how it affected the composers of that place and time.

    In a distant way the book reminds me of "The City of Nets" in that there are many stories being told - because some of them are real characters - but also for me there were some dry areas. Not sure because of the text or the writer's focus, or maybe it's just the subject matter. But overall I think this book is pretty essential in not only music history but also how music interacts with society/culture of that time. Ross is really good at giving the big picture.

  • Alex
    Dec 20, 2007

    Ross, whose articles in the New Yorker I have followed religiously for years, and continue to anticipate with a zeal otherwise reserved for The Wire, delivers a multi-layered and exhaustively researched portrait of a century's music and its reception. His account includes not only a collection of nuanced miniature biographies of composers—both the duly celebrated and the tragically neglected—and sweeping, intertextual analyses of "the music"—from jazz rags and pop songs to symphonic masterworks—

    Ross, whose articles in the New Yorker I have followed religiously for years, and continue to anticipate with a zeal otherwise reserved for The Wire, delivers a multi-layered and exhaustively researched portrait of a century's music and its reception. His account includes not only a collection of nuanced miniature biographies of composers—both the duly celebrated and the tragically neglected—and sweeping, intertextual analyses of "the music"—from jazz rags and pop songs to symphonic masterworks—but a breathtaking synthesis of how the twentieth century world produced the music it did, and how the world was refracted and recasted through its lens.

    One of the more amusing of his many distillations is his pitting of the twin modernist conceits against one another—on the one hand welcoming the "ragtag masses" with goofy fanfares, sentimental tunes and light operas, while on the other, consecrating an utterly abstruse aesthetic language accessible only to a select group of sophisticates.

    Like a great satirist, Ross is especially keen at revealing the ironic similarities between otherwise opposing spheres. "The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be not unrelated to the politics of fascism," he writes: "both attempt to remake the world in utopian forms."

    Indeed, The Rest is Noise evinces many of the attributes of a novel—lucid prose, richly drawn characters, illuminating convergences between internal worlds and external events—yet firmly tethered to historical truth. It's a rare thing to be so spellbound by a work of non-fiction.

  • Gary
    Dec 29, 2007

    alex ross is one of the few remaining music critics for a major american periodical (there used to be many more, but it's a dwindling profession/art), in his case,

    . he attends a concert more than once if possible, with the score and without, in order to both understand the music

    feel it. and he's young, so his ears aren't burdened with decades of ear wax, "received wisdom," archaic prejudice, etc.

    how rare is it to ever find anyone who can

    about music!? (an impossible cha

    alex ross is one of the few remaining music critics for a major american periodical (there used to be many more, but it's a dwindling profession/art), in his case,

    . he attends a concert more than once if possible, with the score and without, in order to both understand the music

    feel it. and he's young, so his ears aren't burdened with decades of ear wax, "received wisdom," archaic prejudice, etc.

    how rare is it to ever find anyone who can

    about music!? (an impossible challenge on the face of it, if one is going to say anything more than technical

    like, "... the dotted sixteenths in bar25 mirror the attenuated chromatic intonation ..." etc etc)

    his grasp of the material is sure; his writing is tonic, refreshing; his insights are sharp; his tone, fresh. he's on the dime.

    he's been working on this book for some time and finally it's out. (there are a few inevitable repetitions here and there, in stitching the whole thing together, but — hey!)

    hands-down, THE best book on 20th-century Western music you'll ever find in THIS one.

    AND you can enhance your reading by visiting

    , where he's posted representative selections, for each chapter, as well as his always lively blog

    hear, here!

  • Greg
    Jan 01, 2008

    This book took me way too long to read, which is a little strange because I found it very interesting and quite inspiring. I'm tempted to give it five stars, but I'm too much of a dilettante when it comes to cough,

    music to not necessarily take everything that the author is saying at face value. I do have two complaints about the books though, the first is that the author clearly dislikes the one of the few people I probably do count as an actual hero of mine. I don't hold it strongly ag

    This book took me way too long to read, which is a little strange because I found it very interesting and quite inspiring. I'm tempted to give it five stars, but I'm too much of a dilettante when it comes to cough,

    music to not necessarily take everything that the author is saying at face value. I do have two complaints about the books though, the first is that the author clearly dislikes the one of the few people I probably do count as an actual hero of mine. I don't hold it strongly against him that he finds Adorno to (what's the word), not necessarily wrong, but some kind of extremist snob for lack of a better word. Every time Adorno makes an appearance on these pages he comes across like a rapid attack dog of anti-everything except for strict Schoenberg non-mass appeal. Which might be true, I've never really delved into his music writings too deeply, but the picture of him as an

    is I like a bit of a cartoonish exaggeration.

    The second complaint I would have of the book is that it kind of stops short of being a history of 20th century music and kind of peters out around 1976 with Reich's

    . A few other composers are talked about and works that they release in the same year, but all talk of the last quarter of the century is treated in a very fragmentary and stilted manner. Maybe there isn't much to talk about, but the style of the book changes in the last fifty pages or so in a way that makes the very end of the book read like a series of notes the author made on a handful of composers and records. In this last section there are also name droppings of pop artists like Radiohead, Sonic Youth and Bjork, which pulls together the history of serious music with pop music, but without doing much more than dropping the names in the swirl of the kind of chaotic finish.

    The author also uses the phrase 'moshpit of the mind' which is almost totally inexcusable in the context it's given in, and actually shouldn't be used by anyone. It's moments like that which seem to make the author trying to hard to sound hip, but there isn't anything hip about using the word moshpit, and really the only people who would ever say something like that are someone's dad who heard the word and thinks it's what with it people are saying. I can't hold this against the author too strongly though.

    All in all I really enjoyed this book, and it's treatment of pre-World War 2 music especially in Germany was very informative to me. I have a feeling that anyone seriously into modern music will find the book to be missing some of their favorites, or think the book treats certain movements too quickly, but as a general overview of a chaotic century's musical trends this book seems to do it's job just fine.

  • Hadrian
    Jan 17, 2011

    The story of classical music in the 20th century is no doubt one of intense changes and an immense cast of characters. How, exactly, did we go from

    in the beginning of the century to

    and

    with a bit of

    and

    in between?

    Ross takes two main approaches here - the first is a political/social context in which classical music evolved and influenced each other. His story begins in

    Vienna and that era of social experimentation, through the dictators

    The story of classical music in the 20th century is no doubt one of intense changes and an immense cast of characters. How, exactly, did we go from

    in the beginning of the century to

    and

    with a bit of

    and

    in between?

    Ross takes two main approaches here - the first is a political/social context in which classical music evolved and influenced each other. His story begins in

    Vienna and that era of social experimentation, through the dictatorships of the 1930s and 1940s, where art was a mandated tool of the state. By contrast, he portrays the exiles in Roosevelt's New Deal America, where classical music was mostly allowed to flourish and get deals with Radio Orchestras and Disney — noticeably better than Hitler or Stalin, who shot you according to your race or class status, respectively.

    Hitler styled himself an artist, and had a keen appreciation for his conception of

    art and culture - stemming from Wagnerian operas, and his distaste for modernism. His favorites were Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, and so forth. Mendelssohn disappeared, however, because he was Jewish. Strauss was coopted by the state, and there were many contradictions between Hitler's vision of

    and the reality. Goebbels hated Strauss and wanted him gone, but it would be too embarrassing. Hitler wanted to invite the rest of his party members to the opera shows, but they wanted to go boozing instead.

    Stalin, on the other hand, wanted to show that high culture could exist without the constraints of capitalism. Shostakovich was one of the main Soviet composers of the era, and cried after the premieres of his propaganda pieces in the 1940s. He found himself lecturing on the 'class-origins' of Chopin and Debussy, and got into trouble in the United States after a heated exchange with Aaron Copland.

    Ross continues this investigation through the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s, seeing what Adorno dimly prophesied as the 'end of art', and how classical music continued to grow and metamorphose after his glum dicta. Electronic classical, folk classical, minimalist classical, and now the modern day with composers like

    .

    It is this duality which often pervades Ross' look, specifically the question of whether 'high-culture' and 'pop culture' can continue to exist as opposites, and as mutually exclusive to each other. His primary contention is that classical music is not a dead form of art, but one which has changed, perhaps suddenly and almost violently over the past hundred years.

    Ross' investigations are not always so phlegmatically political. He continues with a series of biographical essays on the composers themselves, and their relationships with other composers, their predecessors, and their influences. Mahler was wrecked with inner demons of depression, Sibelius had alcoholism, and Shostakovich had not only his inner demons, but the demon in the Kremlin as well. Not all of the biographies are so lurid. The dirtiest story we know about

    is that he once ate an entire pear tart in one sitting.

    The most common complaint with this book, I'd imagine, is that someone's favorite composer or their favorite works are snubbed, whereas some other hack got an entire chapter devoted to them. I have my gripes there too, as I am one of the few people who cannot take the serialists seriously. However, this book is a solid overview on of the great modern composers and their works, and a reasoned appreciation for all, even the ones you personally dislike.

    The astute reader may note that I have barely talked about the music at all. It would be useless for me to do so. Instead, it would be better to look up the pieces referenced, and listen to them, so as to decide for yourself. Very few people can dare to write about music. Ross might. I cannot. He offers a list of suggested listening, which I am linking

    . If not just this review, but the book itself convinces you to explore and feel further, then he has succeeded.

  • Caroline
    Jun 10, 2011

    This is a comprehensive overview of Western music in the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles in the last decade when Disney Hall opened, so I heard music by many of these composers played by both the full orchestra and by smaller groups in the Green Umbrella series. Plus there was Jacaranda in Santa Monica. Those two sources taught me to appreciate modern music, so I read this with much more experience and curiosity than I would have had fifteen years ago.

    But the operati

    This is a comprehensive overview of Western music in the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles in the last decade when Disney Hall opened, so I heard music by many of these composers played by both the full orchestra and by smaller groups in the Green Umbrella series. Plus there was Jacaranda in Santa Monica. Those two sources taught me to appreciate modern music, so I read this with much more experience and curiosity than I would have had fifteen years ago.

    But the operative word is ‘read’. In fact I listened to an audiobook, but it wasn’t much different than reading the book. What a lost opportunity--there were no interspersed audio examples of what Ross was writing about. I have heard perhaps 5 percent of the music he describes. I am not a musician, so I was unable to ‘hear’ in my head most of the pieces he describes with substantial verbal ’notation’. I suppose the problem was one of getting rights to that many recordings, but even one example for the major composers would have helped, especially for the last half of the century.

    You can go to Ross’s website to get audio samples, which is an essential service if you’re reading the book, but it does seem as if integrating them into the audiobook woudl have been a no-brainer.

    Tony has also done a wonderful service in assembling some websites to compensate for this lack; see his review at

    Part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much is that Ross’s own music preferences are on display, and they are very similar my own, excepting Britten. He is acidic on Pierre Boulez’s despotic rule in mid-Century, in particular on his devastating dismissal of earlier innovators like Sibelius. So one notes with a different attitude than before the tributes to Boulez in Sunday’s New York Times (and in fact, some of the ‘tributes’ are given with qualifications) and this years focus on Boulez in Berlin’s Festtage festival. He’s also a bit dismissive of Glass; I do like his Satyagraha nevertheless.

    The book is written clearly, for readers of varying musical knowledge. I took two or three years of music lessons, and was able to follow a little of the discussion, but even a complete novice can follow much of the ‘plot’: the various developmental strands of composing schools as well as episodes featuring the full renegades like Henry Cowell. There are plenty of anecdotes to hold one’s interest. For someone with more musical knowledge there is plenty of information about the evolution of the Vienna School and the American avant garde as they invented more and more abstruse systems until the whole thing collapsed. Now we have Salonen and Ades and Adams and Saariiaho and Golijov (loved the Mass from the first moment I heard it years ago) and dozens more going off in all directions. What a cornucopia of ’noise'!

  • Lobstergirl
    Jun 18, 2012

    Ross weaves biography, history, and musical description into a pleasing synthesis, in accessible nonacademic language. He does for 20th century classical music what

    did for the British Empire, in

    . Both authors are terrific storytellers.

    Among the interesting subplots are the relationships (at times close, friendly, grudgingly respectful, rivalrous, prickly, or downright hostile) between various composer pairs: Strauss and Mahler, Prokofiev

    Ross weaves biography, history, and musical description into a pleasing synthesis, in accessible nonacademic language. He does for 20th century classical music what

    did for the British Empire, in

    . Both authors are terrific storytellers.

    Among the interesting subplots are the relationships (at times close, friendly, grudgingly respectful, rivalrous, prickly, or downright hostile) between various composer pairs: Strauss and Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Britten and Shostakovich, Messiaen and Boulez, Boulez and Cage, Stravinsky and Boulez. (Boulez comes across as the asshole of the book.) After Mahler's death, Strauss said that "Mahler had been his 'antipode,' his worthy adversary." A colleague once heard this exchange between Prokofiev and Shostakovich:

    Schoenberg and Stravinsky, "the twin giants of modernism" and exiles of Europe, lived eight miles apart in Los Angeles, yet apparently never met or spoke. (This fascinating expatriate L.A. community also included Rachmaninov, conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, and writers Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley.) It was only after Schoenberg's death that Stravinsky began to investigate twelve-tone composition for himself; he had been "deeply moved" after seeing Schoenberg's death mask at a dinner at Alma Werfel's house.

    Messiaen was one of the few deeply religious modern composers. "Fellow composers would sometimes drop by Holy Trinity [in Paris] to find out what kind of music Messiaen played for the parishioners on an ordinary Sunday. Aaron Copland wrote in his 1949 diary: "Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at the Trinité. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the 'devil' in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery."

  • Jonathan Barry
    Dec 06, 2013

    I think this book is best read and listened to at the same time; it really adds to it. As such, I created a Youtube playlist to go along with your read, which you can find here:

    If you're looking for a listen with better sound quality and don't mind finding them yourselves (I can't blame you), then here is the list of songs that I thought captured the book:

    Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra

    Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 8

    Claude Debussy – Arabesque I

    Cl

    I think this book is best read and listened to at the same time; it really adds to it. As such, I created a Youtube playlist to go along with your read, which you can find here:

    If you're looking for a listen with better sound quality and don't mind finding them yourselves (I can't blame you), then here is the list of songs that I thought captured the book:

    Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra

    Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 8

    Claude Debussy – Arabesque I

    Claude Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

    Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht

    Anton Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra

    Igor Stravinsky – Rite of Spring

    Darius Milhaud – Scaramouche

    Will Marion Cook – Swing Along!

    Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question

    George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

    Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 2

    Paul Hindemith - Sonate per viola e pianoforte

    Louis Armstrong – Mack the Knife

    Arnold Schoenberg – Jakobsleiter

    Alban Berg – Lulu Suite

    Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5

    Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

    John Cage – Music of Changes

    Karlheinz Stockhausen – Telemusik

    Benjamin Britten – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

    Olivier Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time

    Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel

    John Adams – Common Tones in Simple Time

  • kaelan
    Oct 13, 2014

    This isn't something I say lightly, but pretty much everyone should consider reading Alex Ross'

    .* Why? Because (a) it makes for a riveting work of political and cultural history, and (b) it provides a layman's entry point into that most venerable of Western art forms—classical music.

    I first became acquainted with this book in my late teens. By that time, I'd already immersed myself quite heavily in free jazz, noise, and the like. But classical music—especially the 20th century

    This isn't something I say lightly, but pretty much everyone should consider reading Alex Ross'

    .* Why? Because (a) it makes for a riveting work of political and cultural history, and (b) it provides a layman's entry point into that most venerable of Western art forms—classical music.

    I first became acquainted with this book in my late teens. By that time, I'd already immersed myself quite heavily in free jazz, noise, and the like. But classical music—especially the 20th century variety—had thus far eluded my understanding. Like many otherwise adventurous young listeners, I felt overwhelmed by the plethora of composers, performers and recordings to choose from. And in this regard, avant-jazz was—comparatively speaking—pretty straightforward: all you needed to do was track yourself down a copy of

    or

    or

    . With composed music, the problem was knowing where the hell you should even start.

    Enter

    . Over the course of fifteen chapters, which trace the development of modern classical from Strauss and Mahler up until the present age, Ross examines the seminal musical works of the 20th century, as well as the social and political contexts that birthed them. It's all terribly fascinating stuff. But history only makes up one side of the coin, and the book concludes with a list of recommended recordings (a more comprehensive list may be found on

    ) to guide the inexperienced listener through the disorienting terrain of aural source material.

    Yet this book doesn't only tell you

    to listen to; it also teaches you

    to listen. Gifted with an arresting propensity for translating sounds into words, Ross occasionally devotes a few pages to a single piece of music, explaining how a particular snare drum pattern in a Shostakovich symphony, say, might function as a subtle critique of authoritarianism, or how the retrograde rhythms in a Messiaen chamber work serve to hinder the audience's perception of time. And by means of these descriptions, Ross deftly inculcates the art of

    , of knowing how to successfully parse a swirling miasma of tones, textures and timbres.

    In short,

    is an effective gateway drug into the wild and mystifying world of 20th century classical music. And so I say, "

    " as I rise for a standing ovation.

    (P.S. If anyone would like some classical recommendations, shoot me a message and I'd be more than happy to oblige!)

  • Tony
    Mar 11, 2015

    You know how you can watch a foreign language movie, without subtitles, and still enjoy the film? You may not speak German but can still tell that Hitler's pissed off. You may not speak French, but you can tell that Juliette Binoche has reached a point of existential doubt in a meretricious relationship.

    This book was like that for me. I may not, even now, be able to articulate a difference between atonality and twelve-tone music (is there one?), but I love being told that "some stabbing single

    You know how you can watch a foreign language movie, without subtitles, and still enjoy the film? You may not speak German but can still tell that Hitler's pissed off. You may not speak French, but you can tell that Juliette Binoche has reached a point of existential doubt in a meretricious relationship.

    This book was like that for me. I may not, even now, be able to articulate a difference between atonality and twelve-tone music (is there one?), but I love being told that "some stabbing single notes" in a second movement are like "a knife in Stalin's heart."

    This book is Music in the Twentieth Century. Or, the Twentieth Century, with music.

    It starts with Richard Strauss conducting

    . Puccini took the train north; Mahler

    attended. Schoenberg and Berg were there. Hitler said he was. And if you recall:

    Doctor Faustus

    Leverkühn looms large in this history, a twisting of Evil with Music, and a twisting of Music and the human soul. The notes I heard kept asking "What's next?" and "What's next?" In slow movements, and fast.

    There's some tabloid stuff here: that Alma Mahler, what a tart; that Pierre Boulez, what a jerk. But it's also a Music Appreciation course, and Alex Ross clearly knows his material. He attempts to make this inter-active by offering a website -

    - with click-and-play excerpts. I found that cumbersome and chose my own inter-activity, playing music from my collection or youtubing. I'll annoy you in a bit with some links.

    Ross has an ear for humor too:

    pensato

    I didn't always hear what Ross heard. There's Sibelius in Barber? But then he didn't hear Gorecki in Barber; or didn't say so. That's part of the fun.

    Let me break into some dissonant chords now and give you fragments from the book, things I learned.

    Sibelius remains a big deal in his native land; his face was on every coin until Finland converted to the Euro. The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly 200 times per capita what the United States spends on the National Endowment of the Arts. I'm not saying that's wrong; just sayin'.

    Ruth Crawford Seeger was Pete Seeger's stepmother. She created some (to my ears) really interesting avant garde music:

    . She stopped composing when her Communist husband, a formulator of "dissonant counterpoint", told her "women can't compose symphonies." Oh, Artemisia.

    Perhaps I would have understood Josef Skvorecky's

    better if I knew that it was Stalin who once mused that writers should be "engineers of human souls."

    Musical luminaries descended on Paris in 1952 for the Masterpieces of the XXth Century festival. It was thought to be funded by Julius Fleischmann, the yeast-and-gin millionaire. In reality, the whole event was financed by the CIA.

    There is a bit of The Emperor's New Clothes to the excesses of art, music included. A century that started with Strauss, Mahler and Sibelius ended with:

    John Cage's

    :

    Luigi Nono's signature piece,

    , took texts from anti-Fascist resistance fighters - "I am not afraid of death," "I will be calm and at peace facing the execution squad," "I go in the belief of a better life for you" - and broke them into syllables which he scattered throughout the various choral parts. By making the words less accessible, he believed, they would matter more.

    David Tudor, attacking a piano with boxing gloves.

    Dieter Schnebel, who in his work

    invited audience members to contribute to the performance by conversing, making noises of approval or disapproval, coughing, and moving chairs.

    And Alvin Lucier, who in

    attached electrodes to his head and broadcast his brain's alpha waves to loudspeakers around the room, the low-frequency tones causing nearby percussion instruments to vibrate.

    I'm not kidding.

    And yet, Ross opened up much of the "new" music to me. This was sometimes accomplished just by my own perusal of works by a composer that Ross mentions. Henry Cowell, for instance:

    . Yes, elbows. Some of Cowell's pieces are all

    the piano:

    .

    Delightfully, there are composers I'd never heard of who intrigued, after some exploration. Ross notes six "significant voices" in contemporary music:

    Franghiz Ali-Zadeh of Azerbaijan:

    Chen Yi of China:

    Unsuk Chin of South Korea:

    Sofia Gubaidulina of Russia:

    Kaija Saariaho of Finland:

    Pauline Oliveros of the United States:

    Too late for Ruth Crawford Seeger, or Artemisia for that matter, but all six are women.

    The Twentieth Century. You may think of Rothko paintings. Think of a musical piece written by Morton Feldman, mourning his friend's death:

    .

    The Twentieth Century. When classical music takes a drug and goes Rock:

    . That's right. Take a walk on the wild side.

    The Twentieth Century. I'll let Steve Goodman sing us out: