Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

The Rest is Noise
Alex Ross
640 pages. Farrar, Strauss, Girous, 2007. $30

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“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” said French poet Charles Péguy. This sentence, which begins chapter 11 of The Rest is Noise, may sum up the entire book, and the music of the twentieth century. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (and blogger: his web site is also called The Rest is Noise ) has written a comprehensive study of classical music after the 19th century, which looks less at the music itself than at the political and social context surrounding composers, as well as their inter-relations. Not that the music doesn’t count, but Ross focuses more on the “why” than the “what”.

Beginning with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906, an event that “illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change,” Ross sketches out the complex history of modern music. In what, at times, is more a series of articles than a single coherent narrative, Ross looks at all the main currents of musical thought and fashion, and gives the reader an excellent understanding of why certain composers wrote the music they did. For music does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the cultural context of the times. Modernism didn’t just happen overnight, but can be seen as an organic result of what came before. From Wagner to Mahler, the seeds of twentieth-century music had been sprouting before the beginning of the century. Of course, no arbitrary boundary, such as a date, can separate musical styles, and Ross shows just how music evolved around the cusp of the twentieth century.Ross flits around in time and space, grouping composers by location and affinity, sometimes going forward, sometimes moving backwards in time, to give a bird’s-eye-view of the music that was being created. From Germany to France, from the United States to Russia, he looks at the many styles of classical (as well as, briefly, jazz and rock) that grew and morphed into the next style. Yet to this reader, something strange results from this type of analysis. This narrative suggests just how much this music depended on fashions, fads, on the desire, among some composers, to be different for difference’s sake (it “begins in mystique and ends in politics”). While I appreciate much music of this period, I remain perplexed by the respect given to, for example, severe atonal music, which offers no satisfaction to the listener.

Reading Ross, I get the feeling that much of this music was created more as a counterpoint to other, earlier tonal forms of music, and less out of some desire to write music that pleases. With a variety of systems and gimmicks, many composers simply let the music write itself: Schönberg, perhaps, with his twelve-tone series, or Cage, with his embracing of randomness, are two such examples. Reading about the systems and tricks of these and other composers does not make me want to hear what they wrote.

At times, Ross tries to actually describe the music he is discussing. This is strange; reading something like, “The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases,” or, “the strings play restlessly swirling lines while the brass carve out the whole-tone chords.” He also gives blow-blow descriptions of some works, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In a way, this is like describing the color blue to a blind person; there’s no way to give an impression from music through words on a page. And that’s probably the weakest part of this book: even though it’s not intended to make you hear music, you simply want to as you read about all these different composers. Ross has included a playlist at the end of the book, Suggested Listening (unfortunately hidden between the notes and index), and his web site contains excerpts from many works that you can listen to.

Ross’s writing shines when he writes about the few composers who, if pages are any indication, seem to move him most: Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Britten. These three get much deeper treatment than others, with Sibelius especially getting a thirty-page biographical essay. (This could be seen as anachronistic, since Sibelius’s music, while being written in the twentieth century, is certainly rooted in the 19th.) His analysis of music during Nazi Germany, and during the United States in the Cold War period, are especially interesting for their historical information. Yet sometimes it seems that the politics is more important than the music, and, without hearing what’s being discussed, this analysis becomes academic.

At times, it’s not clear how much Ross actually likes the music he’s writing about; he is very detached, and gives few qualitative opinions. But it’s clear that he knows his subject, down to the details, and the interesting juxtapositions of biography and politics make this an extremely interesting read, especially to understand these composers in context. This is a long book, but, at times, I wished it were longer. Ross, on his blog, mentioned how much had to be cut from his manuscript, and it’s a shame that there’s not more. Especially since some composers get short shrift, or are ignored entirely. Charles Ives, perhaps one of America’s most unique composers, gets just a couple of pages, and such names as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Hovhaness barely get a mention. He also manages to totally ignore the vibrant musical culture of twentieth-century Scandinavia, which has seen, since Sibelius, a number of world-class composers.

Nevertheless, this book is a delightful read, and it deserves a place on the shelves of any music-lover who is interested in the history of the twentieth century and how it influenced music. While it’s only words about music, it can help listeners understand the complex relationships between composers and their times. After reading this, it’s time to go out and listen.

Note: on September 23, it was announced that Alex Ross received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Congrats!

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

  1. Great review. I’m a big fan of Ross’s reviews in the New Yorker & of this book. Because classical music is usually not tied to a text, it’s possible to debate whether it can mean anything at all apart from the pleasing sounds that comprise it. I like that Ross comes down decidedly for music having extra-musical meaning.

    I actually like Ross’s attempts to describe the music, because ultimately it leads me back to listening to more music. He even got me listening to more atonal music! The book definitely should have come with accompanying CDs so readers can hear the music being discussed.

    • It’s “compose”, not “comprise”. (I normally wouldn’t make this correction, but it’s appropriate.)

      If “absolute” music didn’t have some meaning (even though we can’t define it), it’s unlikely anyone would listen to it. One possible “meaning” is that we react to patterns in the music, both large and small. I think Ross says something about this, that the appeal of any music depends on the listener hearing patterns.

  2. Great review. I’m a big fan of Ross’s reviews in the New Yorker & of this book. Because classical music is usually not tied to a text, it’s possible to debate whether it can mean anything at all apart from the pleasing sounds that comprise it. I like that Ross comes down decidedly for music having extra-musical meaning.

    I actually like Ross’s attempts to describe the music, because ultimately it leads me back to listening to more music. He even got me listening to more atonal music! The book definitely should have come with accompanying CDs so readers can hear the music being discussed.

    • It’s “compose”, not “comprise”. (I normally wouldn’t make this correction, but it’s appropriate.)

      If “absolute” music didn’t have some meaning (even though we can’t define it), it’s unlikely anyone would listen to it. One possible “meaning” is that we react to patterns in the music, both large and small. I think Ross says something about this, that the appeal of any music depends on the listener hearing patterns.

  3. Nice review, Kirk. I just finished the book myself. There were a lot of things I
    learned from the book that I hadn’t heard before. But as much as I love
    Shostakovich and Sibelius, I wish that folks like Nancarrow, Beyer and
    Cowell rated more than a casual mention (or no mention at all).

  4. Nice review, Kirk. I just finished the book myself. There were a lot of things I
    learned from the book that I hadn’t heard before. But as much as I love
    Shostakovich and Sibelius, I wish that folks like Nancarrow, Beyer and
    Cowell rated more than a casual mention (or no mention at all).

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