I have recently read Alex Ross’s book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates serious music, especially the music student who is being introduced to the Twentieth Century canon. I have read many music history books like this, and I must admit at first, the title put me off. I thought, “here goes another historian who will be exclusive with the difficulties of contemporary music.” Gladly, I was wrong. Ross is gracious with the full canon of contemporary composers and gives everyone their due. For me, it was a satisfying feeling to read about the composers that I have appreciated but of whom are given a passing glance in other history books. These books, like that of the high art coffee table variety, are usually dominated by well-known composers, and the historians, while going through the motions, sift through their worn out writing with the same, safe, predictable history. Ross not only has his perspective from his research, with fifteen years in writing this book, he gives color to the composers private and public lives. He writes about how they functioned within their musical and political culture. But more importantly, Ross is a music lover and a fluent, informed listener. And as a historian, he is able to articulate on a formal level what is happening in the music and why it is significant. Ross begins his story with Strauss and Mahler and ends it in the late 1980s with John Adams. There is enough biographical information on each composer that the reader gets a sense of the artist. For example, Ross writes about how Strauss (a Jew) lived under Nazi Germany and his relationship with Mahler and Schoenberg. He does the same with Shostakovich and Prokofiev under Stalin. Ross’s writing is succinct, lively, and confident throughout the whole book. He may give some composers too much biographical emphasis like Britten, and some too little attention like Varese, Berio, and Xenakis, (I was somewhat disappointed with this), but at least all the composers are given their due. Also Ross isn’t afraid to personally criticize some composers like Boulez, who comes off as an elitist tyrant, setting the agenda for serious music after the war. Ross’s writing gives a cultural and historical context for each composer and why their music is significant. For example, he will give the reader an idea how other composers reacted at the time to Schoenberg’s 12 tone row, and not just a glib historical fact. Ross’s focus moves from political and personal to more serious matters, giving the reader a nice well-rounded ride. In other words, his story isn’t didactic or stuffy. There are no suspicions here, just a matter of fact voice tone and clarity in historical perspective. Ross fully tracks the continuing drama of the position of atonal music in modernism. After you read the book, you’ll know what Ross means by his title; he is writing about all that is important in serious twentieth century music and the rest is noise. As an afterthought, Ross has a short suggested listening list. You can find these well known examples at the library. Also, if you are not familiar with the pieces that are discussed in this book, you can put the book down and listen to the piece played on You tube. Such advantages are given these days.
May 29, 2012
The Rest is Noise