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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
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on 9 February 2015
Very detailed account of 20th century western art music, with lots of background information.
A bit too much about politics for my taste, though I do appreciate that much of this is relevant to the composers' lives and influenced their music.
I have read a bit more than half of the book so far, it's not the sort of book you can get through quickly.
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on 13 October 2017
An excellent book about music in the 20th century - highly recommend, especially if you are studying music at A level or above.
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on 31 August 2009
Worth a read for some of the unusual anecdotes eg.Boulez kissing Shostakovich's hands. Given Boulez's supposed antipathy (or is it just a pose?)it seems unlikely, but the story is apparently from a trusted source.
The perspective of Ross's book is refreshingly different from previous attempts as figures like Strauss,Sibelius and Feldman (sidelined by Paul Griffiths) are given prominence over some of the usual suspects.
Most tellingly,Ross has the ability to capture the flavour of a particular time and place which puts him ahead of comparable volumes, and why I'd imagine this book has reached beyond the normal confines. This has only been achieved in the medium of television: Paul Crossley's 'Sinfonietta' which was broadcast on Channel 4 in the late 1980s.
On the nitty gritty of musical grammar Ross can be absurdly spurious-take the comparison drawn between the opening four notes of Sibelius's 5th Symphony and Coltrane's 'A love Supreme'-this is thrown in to impress readers who are less familiar with musical notation.
I guess it's inevitable, but Ross is on shakier ground when it comes to living composers-here we are left with speculation, and bereft of the sifting process which takes place over a period of time:Here I feel Ross succumbs to the allure of the fashionable.
An amazing amount of attention is lavished on John Adams,composer of the incredibly anodyne opera 'Doctor Atomic' and a truly atrocious violin concerto.
Only time will tell...I may well be completely mistaken of course!
By comparison, Frederic Rzewski(b.1938) is a mere footnote, and the unconventional British composer Michael Finnissy (b.1946) doesn't even get a mention.
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on 23 July 2010
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 noticed at least one reviewer complain that Ross uses too many big words -- now there's someone who should stick to Dr. Seuss. The typical book on this topic is, indeed, dense and difficult to read, but Ross is a journalist and his practiced writing style is very reader-friendly. The opposite criticism, that THE REST IS NOISE is too shallow, is, I believe, misplaced. There are plenty of other books that go deeper into music theory and the avant-garde than Ross -- Morgan's Twentieth-Century Music is still essential -- but they are not going to reach as big an audience. I am quite glad that Ross has written this book, mainly because I am confident that it is going to expand the audience for modern and contemporary classical music.

Anyone who listens to a lot of 20th century classical music, as I do, is going to disagree with some of Ross's emphases and find omissions. One book cannot do justice to a century worth of music. Most of my disagreements, some of which I will outline, fall in the category of legitimate differences of aesthetic opinion. I would write a different book, but I haven't written it yet! But there is one bias of Ross's that I think he should have checked at the door, hence the four stars instead of five.

Of the six chapters in Part I (1900-1933), I enjoyed "City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties" the most. This is a fascinating period to me, and I was happy to learn more about Weill, Hindemith, Krenek, Wolpe and others. Ross profiles Alban Berg, clearly one of his favorites. The chapter on "Schoenberg, Debussy and Atonality" is a good introduction, though far from definitive. His repeated reference to Thomas Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus," based on Arnold Schoenberg, becomes quickly annoying as Ross uses it to stand in for insight into the actual composer as opposed to his Faustian fictional counterpart. The actual Schoenberg made no pacts with the Devil, regardless of how much some people over the years have disliked his music! Ross devotes an entire chapter to Sibelius, and while I love Sibelius's symphonies, he could have included Nielsen, Martinu and others in a chapter on how unfashionable the symphonic form became in the 20th century. His Chapter 4 on "American Composers from Ives to Ellington" stretches to include jazz composers in the classical canon, and I think this is admirable except that for everything he includes, something gets left on the cutting-room floor. When we get to the late 20th century he doesn't get to the Chicago AACM composers (Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill), for instance, a fantastically inventive group of African-American composers.

Part II (1933-1945) is probably the strongest part of the book, with chapters on Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and FDR's America. Dmitri Shostakovich and Aaron Copland are central to the Russian and American stories, while Strauss, Hindemith and Hartmann all feature in the German chapter. Ross shows his knack for social history to best advantage here, and of course the drama is strong.

The postwar coverage is more haphazard, an unavoidable problem which no music writer yet has been able to solve. The music fragments and becomes less central to most national cultures as it is increasingly pushed aside by amplified rock and other "art in the age of mechanical reproduction." Ross situates classical music in the context of the Cold War, and reveals the deliberate development of academic serialist composition as an alternative to Left-oriented populism. Ross includes a great quote from Schoenberg on "the Schoenberg clique" which reveals insight on the part of both Schoenberg and Ross. The author again indulges his preferences with an entire chapter on Britten. In this case I don't share the author's enthusiasm, and would much rather have seen a broader chapter devoted to the development of 20th century opera, but I will grant that for a journalist a 20 or 30 page profile (of Sibelius or Britten) offers a chance to break out of the otherwise surface skim of a survey. So I can't argue with Ross's choice too much -- he is a compelling writer who tells a good story.

The last chapters, 13-15, are a typical blur as Ross tries to cover everything from the 1960s on. He does a profile on French composer Olivier Messiaen, and a shorter one on Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. He reduces much of the '60s avant-garde to "textural music," which says more about Ross than about the music. Like most people he clearly prefers conventional music that is tonal, melodic, pretty and representational -- the latter becomes clear in his summaries of various compositions, which invariably involve painting a picture of something. In this regard he may be an excellent guide for most people, but not for the listener who is attracted to the avant-garde. Ross's coverage resembles walking past a carnival marvelling and laughing at the strange goings-on. He warms up to tonal Minimalism, and includes Cage, Feldman and Partch in the same chapter. I could list all the great late 20th century composers that Ross either briefly mentions or leaves out entirely, but suffice it to say that he leaves out more than he covers. It seems that this is always the problem with history -- it becomes harder the closer you get to the present.

My one real objection to THE REST IS NOISE is Ross's knee-jerk anti-Left bias. I noticed this when I first read the book a couple of years ago in his discussion of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." Ross says "the libretto was widely understood as a protest against rampant capitalism, although it reads just as well as a critique of the fake utopia of the Soviet Union" (205). Now if Ross wants to critique the USSR that is one thing, but to say that that is what Weill and Brecht were doing is just flat out wrong. Like the better known and more popular "Threepenny Opera" (with "Mac the Knife") , this is a story about gamblers, prostitutes and other criminals, meant to caricature greedy capitalists. Ross wonders why Brecht prefers to portray petty criminals, apparently missing this obvious point. Ross makes clear his absolute hatred of Brecht, going out of his way to paint him and his musical collaborator Hanns Eisler as "thuggish," "brutish," and "ruthless," pursuing a "will to violence." Ross ends the section on Weil and Brecht by seeming to celebrate the death of a Communist partisan in a brawl with Nazis. Later he mentions Helmut Lachenmann's avant opera "The Litte Match Girl" and condemns Lachenmann for "terrorist chic" for quoting Gudrun Ensslin in the libretto (a passage that is actually not even audible to the listener). The relevance of the passage is that Ensslin, a teen-age German girl in the 1960s, set fire to a shopping mall during the Vietnam War to protest the high-consumption life of the middle class while bombs were being dropped on Vietnamese peasants. And the same liberal Ross who equates the Nazis and the Left as a bunch of thugs nowhere finds room to criticize the U.S. or any of its allies for dropping more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II, or Hiroshima & Nagasaki, or numerous CIA coups and military invasions, or any misdeeds whatsoever on the part of the U.S. for that matter. Ross apparently employs a very selective definition of thuggishness.

But this is the one serious flaw in an otherwise superb book that, as I said, seems to have the potential to attract lots of young, new listeners to contemporary classical music. My recommendation to counteract Ross's bias is to listen to Eislermaterial, the collection of Hanns Eisler's music and Bertolt Brecht's lyrics assembled by German composer Heiner Goebbels (see my review). The Weill/Brecht collaboration Berlin Requiem (see my review) is another fine work that you might not have the pleasure of hearing if you allowed Ross to turn your head.

Good reading, and good listening!
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on 12 August 2011
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.
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on 23 May 2008
Given that whole books could be written about virtually every single composer Alex Ross mentions in this mammoth survey, you'd be forgiven for thinking that 'The Rest is Noise' would be heavy on filler and light on critical insight. Whilst it's fair to say that as the musical world diversifies post-1950, Ross spends less and less time looking at the work of individual composers - this should take nothing away from an astounding work of scholarship.

Like any critic, Ross clearly has his own tastes and prejudices - composition to him is at its best when it addresses a popular audience. It's therefore unsurprising that he devotes more pages to composers such as Mahler, Strauss, Stravinksy, Sibelius and Britten over the 20th century's kookier figures. However, Ross is not simply bolstering the canon - Cage, Feldman, La Monte Young and Harry Partch are all given warm appraisals, even though none of them have been absorbed into the contemporary repertory.

Ross is gifted with a both a keen analytical ear (and eye) and a great generosity of spirit. Whilst he explores the darker totalitarian affiliations of composers such as Strauss, Webern, Orff and Shostakovich, he redeems them all from the blunt considerations of popular myth. In fact the only figure in the whole book who is subject to undisguised contempt is Pierre Boulez. In Ross' account he comes across as an arrogant, two-faced hypocrite - capable of acts of quite atrocious slander towards the very composers who made his work possible (Messiaen, Schoenberg, Stravinsky). It says a lot about Ross, that despite this he still finds time to admire Boulez's 'Marteau sans Maitre'.

Ross writes about music vividly, combining technical analysis with metaphorical explanations - so if, like me, you wouldn't know a tritone if it hit you over the head with a sausage, there's plenty here to provoke and engage. As far as I know, the only book covering similar ground to this is Michael Hall's 'Leaving Home' (written as a companion to the excellent TV series). Hall's book is definitely worth tracking down, even if it is sometimes a little technically abstruse its approach.
Ross' historical approach is enriching and rewarding - this is a rigorously researched book with a deeply humane tone- I don't expect to come across a better work of non-fiction this year.
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on 10 December 2008
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 surrounding modern music and its reception among the cultured classes, where it's OK not to know Schoenberg's Five Pieces For Orchestra, but not OK not to know The Waste Land; OK to not know Elliott Carter but not OK not to know Jackson Pollock; where a person might reasonably be expected to have read Wittgenstein's Tractatus but no one is expected to have listened to Le marteau sans maitre It's difficult to imagine a work like this about literature or the fine arts being welcomed so ecstatically.

It seems as if the author unsure who his real audience might be. Much of the first half for instance is made up of potted biographies of composers. These are all very well but that's all they are: potted biographies - the kind of thing most music lovers have already gleaned from sleeve notes. And while Ross is busy making us "at home" with his chosen composers he is neglecting to write about the one thing that makes them interesting - the music that was their life's work. Of course he can write well about music, often very well. There's a marvellous page about the end of Jenufa; he writes feelingly about Berg; and there is an excellent chapter "Beethoven was Wrong" on contemporary American minimalism.

But there are also strange lapses. Benjamin Britten is obviously someone Ross admires both as a man and as a musician, yet he has curious way of showing it. The reader is treated to pedestrian slog through Peter Grimes, a crushingly detailed plot synopsis with musical footnotes, and then an even more dispiriting trudge through Death in Venice. The choice of works has a superficial logic to it - the two operas bracket a career and enable Ross to talk about Britten's homosexuality - but the writing conveys little of the excitement and special atmosphere of this music, while sidelining The Turn of the Screw which many consider Britten's masterpiece.

Anyone thunderstruck by Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus or Carter's Symphony for Three Orchestras, or who has been ravished by some delectable bit of Roberto Gerhard, and wants to know more, or who has seen the DVD of King Priam and wants to explore the rest of Tippett's operas, will find no succour here. Or if you were thinking it was about time to grapple with Skalkottas , Xenakis, Rautavaara or Wolfgang Rihm and were looking for something to help you along, some indication of where to start, the kind of thing you might encounter, or even whether the effort would be worth making, you would look in vain.

The book also has a political bias typical of the time and place of writing - New York in the early years of the 21st century. This means that no progressive movement or endeavour can be mentioned without a condescending sneer. Composers of the thirties and fifties come in for an especially hard time. This is not just irritating, it is also completely a-historical. Even a brief flip through The Road to Wigan Pier or The Grapes or Wrath - to look no further - ought to be enough to show that there were plenty of people in the 1930s who had good reason to have anti-capitalist feelings and that to be against the status quo was not invariably the mark of a dupe or a scoundrel. There is sense too that there is something weird and personal going on when the book swerves aside twice to belabour the Brecht/Eisler The Measures Taken (surely not a very important work in the musical scale of things), characterising it the second time as "terrorist chic". This is a remark which might go down well at a Manhattan dinner party but ought never to have made it into print. Brecht's play is about political activists and labour organisers, not terrorists. The two are not at all the same thing, though perhaps Ross is here angling for a seat on the board of Wal-Mart. (And where, it seems fair to ask, were the much-vaunted fact checkers in all this?). There's some odd ideological wobbling too over European arts subsidy, about which Ross is generally disparaging, while praising the BBC, which he credits for the liveliness of London's new music scene.

The book's biggest disappointment however is that it is unlikely to send the reader rushing to the concert hall or record store to seek out new experiences or back to the CD collection to listen to old favourites with new ears. It's a pity that all the publicity may mean that other, better, more thought-provoking writers about 20th century music are in danger of being overlooked. These include Paul Griffiths (studies of individual composers, collected reviews and his short history of Western music); Andrew Porter (collected reviews); and Charles Rosen (on Schoenberg and Carter). And of course there are many composers who have written brilliantly about their own music and that of their contemporaries, in particular Elliott Carter, Alexander Goehr, Pierre Boulez, Robin Holloway, Hugh Wood and, certainly not least, Arnold Schoenberg whose essay Brahms the Progressive is almost extravagantly ear-opening. None of these are as comprehensive as The Rest is Noise but they communicate a lot more pleasure and are likely to lead to better listening.
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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 Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, where he says of the ailing, exiled composer: "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.
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VINE VOICEon 29 April 2009
The high critical opinion of this book is justified and although some reviewers here on Amazon were clearly less than thrilled by Alex Ross' book, it's a good account of most of the significant composers of the Twentieth century. Most importantly, the writing has style, the narrative moves foward, the groupings of musicians make sense and, crucially, Ross makes you want to listen to the music - to go back to the music you already know and to hear the music you don't know.

Of course it's not the last word on the subject, no single account could be, nor is the book entirely comprehensive - there are plenty of names which have been left out, mainly, I guess, in order to make the material manageable.

In short, the book is well-written, informative and very enjoyable.
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on 5 May 2009
This book has been recommended all over the place: it's a history of 20th Century music and its evolution. I found it a very solid read; for some reason I got it into my head that the price contained a CD of examples (it doesn't) which would have made the exposition easier to follow. (A chance for a clever music publisher?) I was a bit distressed to find that the main argument tends to proving that the right true end of 20th century music is the All-American school (minimalism and its progeny) - I think that already this argument is being placed under stress by the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of this type of music, and the gradual return to music which isn't quite so bum-numbingly slow in its exposition. Nice cover art, though.
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