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Customer Review

216 of 239 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over-hyped perhaps?, 10 Dec. 2008
This review is from: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-10 of 22 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Dec 2008, 19:47:11 GMT
This is a really brilliant review. Not just because I think you have perfectly captured all the reservations I have, but also for suggesting some further reading! thank you so much

Posted on 6 Jan 2009, 16:17:29 GMT
SamSpade says:
all around stellar review.

Posted on 22 Jan 2009, 16:26:25 GMT
Many thanks for this review, which I found really helpful and will now go off and look for works by Griffiths. Also saved me from buying a book I might have been unhappy with

Posted on 27 Jan 2009, 09:40:52 GMT
I would suggest that this 'review' is more about how the reviewer would have written on the subject of music in the 20th c. (but hasn't), as opposed to what Mr Ross has achieved. Indeed, it is a little rich to complain about the tone of the book towards certain subjects and composers, only then to dismiss 9 million people and a decade ("New York in the early years of the 21st century"). But such are the biases of British music criticism. THE REST IS NOISE is a lay person's guide and survey, not a textbook. Read it and read others, but by all means read it and discover some amazing music.

Posted on 6 Feb 2009, 21:27:13 GMT
lilloboss says:
Thank you very much indeed for writing this review; one of the best of the many many I've read on Amazon. Lots of good points made here. I considered buying this volume but you've saved me a few quid. I'll look into Paul Griffiths whom I don't know. Good luck!

Posted on 16 Mar 2009, 00:56:47 GMT
juleptrader says:
wow. i couldn't disagree more with this review. sounds like you know a lot about music and The Rest of Noise is more geared towards the lay reader.

no book is going to be the "one book" to read but The Rest of Noise should encourage people new to classical music to search out the writings you recommend.

Posted on 24 Mar 2009, 16:36:19 GMT
A critical but fair review of the book.

The problem for anyone who is interested in the music of the late 20th and early 21st century is finding out where to hear it. In London the BBC Invitation Concerts for many of the Radio 3 Hear and Now programmes and the free Music of Today concerts run at the Festival Hall have been valuable, as have concerts by the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekends which have now been replaced by Total Immersion Days. The British Music Information Centre ran a series of new music concerts called The Cutting Edge in Waterloo and Kings College London's Music department sometimes holds concerts that are open to the public, as do The Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music.

Posted on 27 Mar 2009, 15:44:40 GMT
Jane says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Apr 2009, 05:45:23 BST
Great review, thanks! I like Alex Ross's book, but I agree with most of your criticisms. Thanks for putting in several good words for Elliott Carter!

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Apr 2009, 16:59:24 BST
Perhaps one could learn more about music from someone who knows a bit about it ? No-one is asking for "the one book", but the political and indeed musical prejudices noted in the review seem to me serious drawbacks about this book. adj
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