34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars breezy and compulsively readable
If someone told you "Hey, I've got a great beach book for you, it's about 20th century classical music!" you would no doubt think they were pulling your leg. But that's what we have here, quite an accomplishment by Alex Ross, the music writer for The New Yorker. Ross's breezy combination of biography, social history and musical analysis makes the 543 pages fly by. I...
Published on 23 July 2010 by Autonomeus
210 of 233 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-hyped perhaps?
This has been the subject of a great deal of hype but (perhaps because of that) I found I didn't enjoy it very much. Anyone looking for something as crisply written and as intellectually stimulating as, say, The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes is likely to be disappointed. It's a curiously baggy and unfocussed book, which perhaps reflects some of the difficulties...
Published on 10 Dec 2008 by Don Bartolo
Most Helpful First | Newest First
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for anyone interested in classical music,
This review is from: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Hardcover)
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like the music the story starts well,
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
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark book on 20th century music,
This review is from: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Hardcover)
It is often said that modern "classical" music is unlistenable, and very much a poor relation of its forebears, struggling to find its own identity in the shadows of such giants as Beethoven and Wagner. In this illuminating history of modern music throughout the 20th century, Ross, who is music critic for the New Yorker, never denies this fact, but populates his prose with such authority that it is harder to see this so-called decline and turns intrigue into interest.
The conflict that engulfed Europe throughout this period impacted enormously upon musical tradition and its composers. Ross highlights in particular the inner turmoil and privations of luminaries such as Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Strauss in particular cuts a rather forlorn figure, the penumbra of genius that shone around him during his early years in Vienna and trips to the USA fading dramatically as he opted to publicly sanction the Nazi regime whilst privately harbouring enormous doubt about its moral worth. The dandy-like figure of Stravinsky is the darling of the West after the tumult of "The Rite of Spring", but is dismissed by Ross as being "more famous for who he was, rather than for his music". Shostakovich is a composer trapped in a dark world, his work appropriated beyond his grasp, and in a tragic end used as a mouthpiece for the totalitarian regime he decided not to leave, whilst the Finnish composer and alcoholic Sibelius is doomed to wander in solitude trapped by silence in the icy forests that gave him so much inspiration. These were the last European composers who drew from the romantic tradition, because elsewhere much was happening in the musical world, most notably with Schoenberg in Vienna, and his dedication to the new compositional method known as Serialism. His notable disciples include Berg and Webern, whose work would dazzle the likes of Boulez and Cage later on, the latter an unashamed and until recently unknown Nazi sympathizer who came to an unfortunate end just after the end of the war.
The Second World War brought to an end what many would call the European classical tradition. Ross skilfully notes that virtually any European composer of any note after the war was profoundly affected in some way by the conflict. Olivier Messiaen, who went onto compose works of compelling beauty that were influenced both by his devout Catholicism and his fascination with birds, was captured by the Nazis and luckily had a jailer who recognised his talents whilst incarcerated at Stalag Luft VIII that he was able to continue to compose in relative peace. Xenakis, who lost his left eye in the Greek Resistance, trained to become an architect and then went to compose dense music with a unique mathematical angle. Most famously, Stockhausen lost his father on the Eastern front and his mother to a mental institution, and as a teenage boy helped as a stretcher bearer on the front. The sheer sight of so much death and destruction was influential in his almost messianic belief in the new esperanto of electronics and serialism as the Darmstadt school gained ground in the 50's.
Against the backdrop of European decay is the growing might of American music. Ives, Copland and Gershwin are the New World's first shining stars, helped by the creative affluence of Roosevelt's New Deal, and after the War they are joined by the likes of Cage, Reich and Feldman, their wholly unorthodox approach tying in with the new school of thought propagated by Boulez and Stockhausen in the old world. Perhaps most significantly the author dedicates time to the American reconstruction of culture in Germany and Europe, that helped so much to build the avant-garde base from which the Darmstadt school appeared.
Ross also produces a wonderful piece of insight by noting that unlike the 19th century, religion in music returned in considerable strength. Whereas only Verdi and Berlioz produced requiems during the 19th, devotional music abounded during the 20th. Schoenberg and Stravinsky both responded early on to sexual liberation and mass consumption during the 20's with biblically themed music, and as mentioned before, Messiaen made it his very raison d'etre, culminating with the grand 5 hour opera St Francis of Assisi, an epic to match Wagner's Parsifal. Modern Europe became much more secular but drew inspiration from mysticism. Stockhausen's most arresting work, Gesang der Junglinge, takes its story from the old Testament book of Daniel.
Opera is where Ross seems to be at his happiest, spending considerable time analyzing Salome, Porgy & Bess and Peter Grimes, the latter being the only notable contribution by a British composer (Benjamin Britten) to the book, and perhaps lending weight to the old 19th century criticism that England was "the land without music". Indeed, in such a far-reaching book, it would be impossible to cover all areas and list all composers, and to his credit, he manages instead to concentrate on those who made the most significant contributions. He also manages to weave in, albeit in small doses, the influence that composers would have on Jazz and Rock artists, for instance when Charlie Parker noticed Stravinsky in the audience one evening and weaved in a small motif from Firebird into Koko to the composer's considerable delight.
The general disdain and disinterest that much of the listening public have shown towards music from the 20th century is mostly due to its inherent complexity and lack of tonal structure. Arguably one of the most popular of all works, Carmina Burana, was made by the avowed Nazi sympathizer Hans Pfitzner, which shows that works of relative melodic harmony often came from disdainful individuals. Ross shows with great skill that the massive upheaval that Europe in particular suffered was the main source of this great change in music, and that in the relative calm of the new world, even there the sacredness of tonality would be undermined by the avant-garde. The Rest is Noise is a wonderful read, and a great launching point for anyone interested not only in electronic music, but in the roots of what we listen to today.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity,
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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very ecumenical approach to 20th c. 'classical' music,
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*."
62 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Composing Classical Music from 1900-1950,
This review is from: Rest is Noise, The: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Hardcover)
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 20th Century perspective,
Yes, this is a brilliant and well-researched book, written expressively and compellingly. I hope that you will enjoy reading it. However, I trust that there will be a 21st century response to it. Now I need to mention drawbacks. The perspective is an exceedingly America-centrique one. Thus Sibelius becomes magnified as a result of historical judgements made in America. His life stands in place of other composers eg. Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Nielsen, Rautavaara and others. Does Britten need his own chapter? Is serialism of more significance than minimalism? Why so much detail regarding second and third rate composers whose work has little or no audience?
The number of references made in the index is instructive. Schonberg comes out on top. Stravinsky and Shostakovich get significant numbers of references. The composers of Latin America are regarded as almost un-noteworthy. This is a blind spot. Some essential composers are treated as peripheral. Does Kodaly simply deserve one sentence?
One bit of the book that you must not miss;- Suggested Reading and Listening, which is very near the back of the book, after the notes. It may be useful to read first. I gained a great deal of insight from listening to the music as I read the book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction,
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent,
Read first by my son (as a hardback). I got halfway through to the death of Prokofiev and had a break. As son returned book to Library I decided to buy a kindle version. Fantastically well written - to keep an audience interested he really knows how to do it. Now all I need is a notebook to write down new ideas for listening and further reading on history or composers lives. Highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Grew Up With Rock and Roll,
This review is from: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Kindle Edition)
I did - serious music for me came with electric guitars and a heavy, regular beat. Classical music was Beethoven, mainly, and stopped at about 1900 after which it disappeared into being unlistenable, academic, dry, hopelessly dull and pretentious.
So, for me this book was a revelation. I wasn't totally narrow minded - Stravinsky, Satie, Shostakovich and others found their way into my ears, but I had no idea how much I was missing. I've almost been afraid to open this book most nights for fear that I will be swept away by another Messiaen or Reich or (my favourite discovery in here) Harry Partch.
Not for the first time, I have had cause to rebuke myself for thinking I knew things I didn't and have had my ignorance cured by a scholar who is, obviously, also a fan whose passions are infectious. I have read with interest the debates in some of the comments - I don't know enough to say if this book is really as comprehensive and rigorous as it ought to be. But I do know it has introduced me to a new world of music that I am enjoying every moment of. If modern classical music is a closed book to you, open this one.
Most Helpful First | Newest First