on 29 July 2009
As someone who is not a student of music and who finds much of the more technical terminology confusing, I was amazed by how much I enjoyed Ross's account of the development of 'classical' music in the twentieth century.
One of the reasons for my enjoyment was that Ross does not just write about the music. He also explores the life of the composers, drawing easy parallels between their biographical experiences and the development of their musical expression. As such, the book develops into a political and social history as it comments on the challenges faced by composers working behind the Iron Curtain or in Nazi Germany. He also has much to say about America and its search for its own distinctive musical voice.
As well as the book, Ross has also developed an impressive website which contain samples of many of the works he quotes in his book allowing you to listen as you read and to develop your understanding of the music and the terminology used in the book.
Therefore, I would say that this detailed and entertaining work has much in it for the general reader and not just the musicians and will introduce you to works of music that you have never heard before but will learn to understand and to appreciate.
on 18 July 2009
Read this book over a number of sessions. The first half I thought was super - the second half was hard work. Reviewing the releationship between music and politcal and cultural events between 1900 and 1945 was fascinating - Shostakovich's relationship with Stalin possibly the best chapter in the book.
Post 1950, the book becomes much less interesting. The modernist/minimalist movements are less interesting (as is the music) and the book seems to jump from the 1960s to the end of the Millenium a bit too quickly.
Intended or not there is also too obvious a USA bias in the writing the history of the century. Post 1950 far too much attention is given to US composers and too much from Western Europe seems trivialised. The author seems to struggle writing his musical history of the century without making the USA more central than it should be to the history (usual Old World New World stuff).
For me very much a book of 2 halves. 1900-1950 chapters were excellently presented, fluent, thought provoking and with a good pace. In contrast I found the second half of the book a bit laboured, 20 years of history arguably missed out, too much focus on New York City and US composers - and links to the pop and rock genre overstated.
Also find it bizarre that the BBC Proms - the world's biggest music event that spans the century - doesnt event get a mention.
The result - an interest read but would certainly not see it as the best reference book on the subject
on 6 September 2009
The chaotic development of "classical" music during the twentieth century has long been due an inquest. We need answers to questions such as - how did the strange chains of noises that we have been invited to listen to come about; which of them make any sense; and which of them will people want to listen to in a hundred years' time. Alex Ross has attempted to chart here "the fate of composition in the twentieth century" - roughly the first of the above three questions - and has done so with limited success. His book does not make much of the second or third questions, and more importantly suffers from being heavily flawed on many matters, both general and detailed.
To be fair, the subject is immense. Many publishers would have assembled a team of experts under a project manager to ensure a balanced response. Here we just get Ross' opinion, which inevitably means an enormous loss of balance. He is first a journalist, only second a music critic, and when he tries to interpolate his views on how wider global events impacted the development of composition, the reader faces some bizarre distortions. Occasionally the wider references are useful, such as when Ross traces the roots of Darmstadt to OMGUS, the Office of Military Government, United States. More often they are a distraction or even seriously contentious and disruptive, for example in a lengthy and fundamentally irrelevant section devoted to Hitler's interest in Wagner's music, which could not seriously be held to have had a far-reaching impact upon twentieth-century composition.
Ross is at his best in assessing composers such as Messaien, where there is relatively little journalistic anecdote material to distract him. It is weakest where the side-material carries greatest journalistic "spice" - Schoenberg is introduced with a wildly unlikely story of him as a 74-year-old shouting in a Los Angeles supermarket that he never had syphilis, for example, and Ross gets hopelessly swept away in trying to engage with Britten's interest in boys. As a result Britten gets 35 pages of this 543-page book. By contrast, seminal figures such as Bartok and Janacek each get less than three pages.
I am keen to encourage you to read the book and think for yourself, but to be prepared for many distortions and obstacles. Ross plainly does not understand far too much about the causes of the developments he describes. He entirely misses the huge achievements of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez, failing importantly to connect with the "why" behind each core Boulez career decision. He wholly misunderstands Shostakovich, belittling the stresses under which he worked and failing to recognise the central achievement of his 15 quartets. Key independent spirits such as Henze and Xenakis barely get mentioned.
At the more detailed level too, lapses rain thick and fast. There is no space here to list even a sample (if I have time I will add a selection in a separate comment) but one aches for the publisher to have insisted on a properly qualified editor.
Despite this, the subject is of real importance and for all its many faults Ross' book is readable and thought-provoking.
on 15 April 2010
I found this book both interesting and stimulating. I studied music but got stuck in the 19th Century and therefore came across little 20th Century works beyond Debussy during my time at university. This book began to fill in the gaps. Clearly with a subject such as the music of the last century being so broad and varied it was not possible for the author to go into much detail about every composer and musical movement. What he did however was open my eyes to possibilities and further reading and listening. Of course whilst reading I found the author's personal preferances shone through but is it ever possible to write about music without this happening even with the best intentions of the author to remain impartial? Overall a good introduction to a fascinating subject.
on 7 February 2009
No-one who loves classical music should pass this by. Alex Ross does a better job than anyone else I have read in drawing together the multitudinous strands of twentieth century music, moving adroitly between the bigger picture and in depth discussions of those works he sees as crucial nodes along the way.
His discussion of "The Rite of Spring" had me reaching anew for the score, and of "Wozzeck" for my boxed set. He illustrates how twelve tone music was not quite the sterile experiment it might once have seemed, and how elements of it were picked up and used by composers as temperamentally diverse as Britten and Messiaen, and by those who wrote for Hollywood. One is again amazed that Dmitri Shostakovich managed to survive at all in the USSR, and the chapters on the warped Soviet world should silence detractors who feel that any unevenness in this composer's oeuvre is down to compositional inadequacy. Ross' description of Shostakovich and Prokofiev as "flawed actors on a tilted stage" is apt, and, despite what he says about it being "the wrong question to ask", he does not fail to point up similarities with the contentious case of Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany.
There are one or two curios. Pierre Boulez comes off extraordinarily badly and one wonders if they had a run in at some point. Ross also makes a point of rendering foreign language titles in awkward-sounding English when the original is perfectly acceptable, and usually more mellifluous - "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" throughout, for example (although he makes exceptions for "La Mer" and "Le Marteau sans maitre").
Perhaps above all, though, it is the quality of the written language that is so masterly. Some of it is amusing, as in his second-hand report that the most exciting thing to happen to Messiaen in his later life was when he and Yvonne Loriod once finished off a whole pear tart at one sitting. Some is perceptive in its simplicity, as in his description of Messiaen's opera "Saint Francis of Assisi" whose five hours "is not as monumental as it appears; it is really a village mystery play on a Wagnerian scale." And some is very touching, as in his paragraph on the Concerto for Orchestra, where he says of the ailing, exiled Bartok: "Transylvania was by then a purely mental space that he could dance across from end to end, even as his final illness immobilized him." Prose like this lifts this book into another plane.
on 30 January 2010
If you want to know more about Twentieth Century classical music, read `The rest is noise'. This book has already won widespread plaudits, including being the winner of the Guardian First Book award 2008. It is a chunky tome - you need strong wrists to read in bed! The main text ends on page 591, to be followed by about 100 pages of notes, recommended listening and a good index.
Ross has an astonishing breadth of knowledge, conveyed with clarity, so his is a very educational book. The classical music of the last century contains many streams and reputedly difficult pieces that make us wary. This fractured, controversial and confusing musical landscape needs a guide, a Virgil to lead us through hell, and Ross is that man. He is a likeable, positive and enthusiastic companion, and will surely lead you to listen to more of the music he recommends, as I have done under his influence.
Ross does not treat music in isolation, but sets it in a vivid context of the history of the times. Politics, war, literature, philosophy and so forth influence music, just as music influences other spheres of our society. He is most enlightening on the birth of modernism before the first world war, the negative impact of the Nazis, the terror under Stalin, the cultural battles of the cold war and so on. By reading this book, you should have a better overview of many themes of 20th century history.
The definition of `classical' music is deeply difficult in the 20th Century, but the author has a clear idea of what is the serious music that he wants to tell us about. He is catholic and eclectic in his tastes, with no trace of snobbery. He acknowledges and enthuses about the influences of music hall, jazz, blues, folk music, bebop, rock, electronic music and so on, as well as explaining how serious music influenced and informed them, in turn. As he wisely says in his epilogue: "Music history is too often treated as a kind of Mercator projection of the globe, a flat image representing a landscape that is in reality borderless and continuous".
The story opens with the dramatic and distinct impacts of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, while showing their connections back to Wagner and Debussy and so on. He explicates the revolutionary newness of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and their followers. The galvanic effect of the rule-breaking dissonances, atonality, rhythms and other innovations of that era can be appreciated from his narrative. However, none of us in this age can participate in the shock to audiences at, for instance, `Salome' in 1906 or `The rite of spring' in 1913, because our ears are already so attuned to the full range of modern styles and techniques. The audiences of a hundred years ago would have been purely soaked in what you could call the (first) Viennese school of classical music, and so more easily shocked.
Excitement to the ear comes from when the composer violates the established rules, gives us what we had not predicted. This is nothing new - Mozart famously wrote a `dissonnance' quartet and revolutionised the subject matter of Opera with `Figaro'. Artists like Schoenberg could enjoy the fight to break through conventions, and achieve fame / notoriety within intellectual circles. The musical history of the twentieth century could be (simplistically) described as successive waves of breaking convention, even insulting the audience, until you reach the extreme techniques of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Birtwhistle et al. However, the problem is a reductio ad boredom. When all the rules are broken, or there are no rules, then the excitement of breaking the rules disappears, leaving a sort of nothingness.
I reflected that the exciting iconoclasm occurring in music was mirrored in parallel events in painting (think of Picasso), poetry (for example Thomas Eliot), architecture (such as Frank Lloyd Wright) or even science (obviously, Einstein). There is an astonishing sense of the zeitgeist flowing in the same direction. Ross does not stray off his own patch; these are my own observations. Here again, free form poetry can be seen to tend towards boredom, compared with the admirable felicity of expressions within tight conventions, such as Alexander Pope.
Ironically, composers were just as much seeking to tie themselves within new rules, such as `12 tone' or `total serialism' or matrix compositions. Ross is not dogmatic or disparaging of many of these movements - he seems to find merit and interest in nearly everything. Naturally, with so much to choose from, he concentrates his writing on what he personally likes. He admits that he cannot cover all composers in any depth, and makes bold selections. For instance, he devotes many pages to Benjamin Britten, asking us to enjoy the analysis of the one British artist as representative of many other worthy artists from the same country.
One can argue about who you would like to see included in this tome - and each special plea would make the book longer and heavier. Clearly Ross had to draw the line somewhere. Well, I personally would have liked more coverage of Alexander Scriabin, Edward Elgar and Nicholas Maw. Possibly they do not fit the themes or the chapter headings, but they produced individual works that must surely rank as supreme achievements of the century, namely and respectively `The poem of Ecstasy', `Cello concerto' and `Odyssey'.
I like the way Ross pauses from the broad narrative to describe individual pieces in detail, such as Strauss's `Salome', Shostakovich's `Fifth symphony', Ellington's `Black, brown and beige', Messiaen's `Quartet for the end of time' or ` Berg's `Lulu'. These are high quality sleeve notes and engender a hunger to listen to the music. I responded by buying CDs of some of the pieces, and made enjoyable discoveries. Illustrating the point I made earlier about the modern ear being already attuned to the revolutionary techniques, I found Schoenberg's `5 pieces for orchestra' and Webern's `6 pieces for orchestra' very worthwhile - not shocking. Certainly one should not treat this music as background music - it deserves attention - but that applies to all serious music.
He has many arresting turns of phrase and witty thoughts; for example: "Cocteau and Poulenc were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the following day." He comes up with connections, facts and interpretations that are enlightening, whether it is pointing out the high proportion of gay artists, the influences of Jazz (and the influences on Jazz) or the brilliant description of minimalist music (Reich etc) being like driving along the interstate highways of America.
Read this book for education, enjoyment and elevation. If you have patches of knowledge of Twentieth Century music (as I do), Ross will tie them together for you, give them more resonance and encourage you to listen to more. He would be someone I would like to join for a fortnight's journey on the trans-Siberian express (with an ipod to listen to the music samples as we went along). I feel a long and rewarding journey has been completed by reading this book through.
on 7 July 2009
This book surveys 'classical' (a term I will not attempt to define!) composers from Mahler and R. Strauss up to the present. One of the things I really liked about it was the way he pretty much doesn't care about the distinction between who's 'progressive' and who's 'conservative' - Shostakovich and Copland get as much coverage as Messiaen and Boulez. (You can contrast it with Paul Griffiths' Modern Music, which very much takes the orthodox modernist line, devoting tons of space to Stockhausen, Maderna, Nono etc. and being utterly patronising about Shost and Britten.)
Also, he does a very good job of placing the music in its broader cultural and political contexts without that ever being overbearing. Another plus is that he has the extremely rare gift of being able to describe pieces of music in a way that gives an idea of what it sounds like, and without bewildering the reader with technicalities.
He also has many 'ah yes!' insights along the way. I'll just give a couple of my favourites.
He argues, based on features of the physical way people perceive music, that twelve-tone music will always be unsettling in a way that can't be wholly accounted for by the fact that it's an unfamiliar idiom. (He's not *anti*-twelve-tone music, far from it, but just thinks that we should acknowledge that it really is difficult to listen to, and that that's not just down to closed-minded listeners.)
Another bit I liked was the way he tells the history of post-WWII American music, where Cage comes out as a major liberating influence, not just from tradition, but from the European avant-garde as well. So he traces a lineage from Cage to Feldman to Lamonte Young to Riley and Reich. (Sadly, Alan Hovhaness gets left out of Ross's story here, whereas I think he should have been mentioned as a key figure. He and Cage were good friends, and admired each others' music despite the obvious differences.)
Another point I liked was where he quoted Duke Ellington objecting to people saying that jazz is 'modern classical music' or 'black classical music.' Ellington thought that to call jazz any type of classical music was to deny jazz its own `original genius'. I've always thought something like this, but it's good to know that I have the authority of Ellington on my side!
Incidentally, some of the reviewers made a big point of the supposed fact that Ross tells the whole story of 20th century music from Mahler to the Velvet Underground. The truth is that it is a history of classical music compositon in the 20th century, with jazz and rock being discussed a bit, but only as part of that broader cultural context I mentioned earlier.
Of course I have some reservations. One minor one is the journalistic tone of some of the writing - e.g. on the first page Gershwin is introduced as 'George Gershwin, creator of Rhapsody in Blue''. I can't fully articulate why this phrase annoys me so. I think it's got something to do with the facts that (1) Gershwin didn't 'create' Rhapsody in Blue, he composed it; (2) one would think that anyone wanting to read a book on the history of 20th century music would know who George Gershwin was. Also, people who use "[sic]" when quoting people as often as he does really should look to the beam in their own eye. (You'll see what I mean if you read it.)
That might just be me, but a more serious complaint I have is that British composers are almost totally neglected. He talks about the influence of folk music traditions on composers, and he discusses the usual suspects - Bartok, Janacek, etc. - but *where is Vaughan Williams??* Likewise, Tippett barely gets a mention. The only British composer to get extended treatment is Britten. He gets a whole chapter to himself, including a ten-page summary of Peter Grimes. Now, I like Britten but this seems excessive, and only makes the neglect of other British composers all the more galling.
He does *almost* compensate for this at the very end with one nice remark, on how British music went through many of the same phases as music elsewhere, but 'without the constant background noise of ideological disputation.' A nice little insight I think, especially as he has told a plausible story about how it wasn't just in the Soviet Union, but in Western Europe and the U.S. as well, that composers were subjected to political pressures.
On the whole the book has a bit of an Americo-centric bias - for example, you would get the impression that the most important thing Messaien ever did was to visit Utah.
But please don't be put off by my complaints! Any book that aims at this kind of comprehensiveness on *any* subject is bound to strike any reader as biased or lacking in some ways. On the whole it's a great read, from which you can get plenty of both new information and new insights. As you'd expect, the comments about the immediate present and the speculations about the future are a bit vague. But they are optimistic, and he makes optimism about music's future seem plausible.
A final word of warning: if you do read this book, you'd better either have a very large collection of 20th century music, or a lot of money to spend on building one! Time and time again you will find yourself reading Ross's description of a piece and saying to yourself "I want to hear that *now*."
If you would like to know more than you do now about classical composition in the first half of the twentieth century, The Rest Is Noise is a valuable resource. If you are curious about what happened from 1950 through today in classical composing, you'll get a thumbnail sketch of what the most experimental composers did.
I loved the title. How many times I've heard people describe music that employs dissonance or isn't to their taste as "just noise."
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has fun with that concept by suggesting that various types of classical music written since Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring often have more in common than you would expect. His constant references back to common elements among the schools is a particular strength of this book.
Mr. Ross clearly favors those works that have gained the broadest audiences. Those who mainly experiment for themselves and small audiences don't receive much attention, even when their advances are conceptually significant for expanding what can be done with composition.
What's the style of the book like? I can best compare it to reading extended program notes where you connect the dots between one night's performances and the rest of the season's series. In addition, he is a little more candid about the personal lives of the composers than most program notes would provide. He seems particularly interested in exploring the homosexual and lesbian tendencies of the composers and the various musical figures he writes about.
I was very impressed by Mr. Ross's ability to explain various innovations, many of which are unfamiliar to me. He employs a combination of metaphors, references to other musical works, and scientific explanations to get the points across. In doing so, he displays excellent ability to conceptualize and to write about music.
My main regret as a I read the book was that it didn't have a companion CD set that would allow me to quickly listen to the works that he is describing. Although I obviously didn't need that for the works that have become standards in the repertoire, many references aren't to anything very standard.
Mr. Ross also seeks to describe the twentieth century as seen through its composers. Although he certainly develops some useful themes like the role that governments play in encouraging and discouraging composition, I thought that this aspect of the book worked less well by being incomplete. But where important themes were addressed, the material certainly was interesting.
on 23 June 2013
Where to start with a book which has such a huge scope? The history of twentieth century music could fill many, many books, and attempting to distill this extraordinary canon into one (admittedly very thick) book is no mean feat, but I couldn't imagine anyone doing it better than Alex Ross. Obviously, any music fan will find omissions, but Ross does his best to cover all of the important music developments of the century while managing this fairness with a partisan streak which makes his writing polemical, independent and passionate. Knowledgeable and opinionated, Ross makes the perfect guide for a long musical tour.
The landscape created by Mahler and Strauss forms the opening stage of the book, creating the platform on which musical modernism is based. From here, Ross expertly chronicles the divergent strands which split off from the revolutionary Viennese composers of the late nineteenth century, allowing us to understand the conflicts which shaped music for many years to come. Perhaps the most important development here is serialism, the radical streak which pulled music apart as the century developed. Although sympathetic to the revolutionary nature of serialist composers like Schoenberg and Webern, Ross rejects the more puritannical strand of atonal music, voicing his support for diversity in music. Ross is willing to champion composers like Sibelius and Copland, reclaiming them from labels of 'conservatism'. While my own sympathies lie with experimental music, I feel it is unfair to denigrate composers for writing for a mass audience and I applaud Ross for his reclamation of some very talented composers from their critics.
As the century develops, the polarity between tonal and atonal music grows wider, perpetuated by the aggressive interventions of the likes of Boulez. Although he offers an excellent history of post-war experimental music (he particularly recommends Stockhausen's 'Gruppen', a recommendation which I would echo), Ross is never willing to 'sell out' to the experimentalists, and he seems relieved when the minimalists bring tonality back to music. Perhaps Ross can be characterised as an admirer of American music above all else, ensuring he does not throw his weight behind the Eurocentric tradition of classical music. This is Ross' strength: his autonomy prevents him from ever succumbing to conventional wisdom. As the century ends, so many voices proclaim the death of classical music. Ever contrary, Ross says otherwise. He looks at the classical influences on pop music and on the new ways of disseminating music and concludes that the present age gives many more opportunities for composers, particularly those not from traditional wealthy, male, European backgrounds. Although I'm not entirely sold on this argument, I would like to believe it, and Ross' passion is so infectious that it is hard not to believe him. He presents twentieth century classical music as a living organism which keeps breathing. Rather than being weakened by its age, Ross paints it as stronger than ever.
on 28 August 2010
Being a music (and history) lover but not a professional musician (or historian) I enjoyed this book tremendously.
I feel obliged to confess however my inability to locate "the rest which is noise" as the title of the book promises. Or does the author allege that anything that is not included in the book is noise?
I also found it somewhat biased and uneven . For instance there is a lot about the American modern music (and Benjamin Britten, with a strong emphasis on the composer's homosexuality) and hardly any for the post-Shostakovich Russian and Baltic countries-music.
Despite these (and other minor) such shortcomings, unavoidable in a book of such scope and ambition, I found the book enthralling. Especially the interface period between tonality and atonality, the historical setting (Vienna and Paris), the tension in the composers' creative mind, the interaction between music and poetry is breathtaking. Not to mention a wealth of biographical details which enhance the appreciation of each composer's music.
Almost as good is the description of the sluggish reemergence of (a different kind) of tonality bringing the whole evolution from tonality to atonality to a new synthesis, whoever tenuous, fluid and variable that synthesis may be.