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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century Hardcover – October 16, 2007

4.2 out of 5 stars 155 customer reviews

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Anyone who has ever gamely tried and failed to absorb, enjoy, and--especially--understand the complex works of Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, or even Philip Glass will allow themselves a wry smile reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's outstanding The Rest Is Noise. Not only does Ross manage to give historical, biographical, and social context to 20th-century pieces both major and minor, he brings the scores alive in language that's accessible and dramatic.

Take Ross's description of Schoenberg's Second Quartet, "in which he hesitates at a crossroads, contemplating various paths forming in front of him. The first movement, written the previous year, still uses a fairly conventional late-Romantic language. The second movement, by contrast, is a hallucinatory Scherzo, unlike any other music at the time. It contains fragments of the folk song 'Ach, du lieber Augustin'--the same tune that held Freudian significance for Mahler. For Schoenberg, the song seems to represent a bygone world disintegrating; the crucial line is 'Alles ist hin' (all is lost). The movement ends in a fearsome sequence of four-note figures, which are made up of fourths separated by a tritone. In them may be discerned traces of the bifurcated scale that begins Salome. But there is no longer a sense of tonalities colliding. Instead, the very concept of a chord is dissolving into a matrix of intervals."

Armed with such a detailed aural roadmap, even a troglodyte--or a heavy metal fan--can explore these pivotal works anew. But it's not all crashing cymbals, honking tubas, and somber Germans stroking their chins. Ross also presents the human dramas (affairs, wars, etc.) behind these sweeping compositions while managing, against the odds, to discuss C-major triads, pentatonic scales, and B-flat dominant sevenths without making our eyes glaze over. And he draws a direct link between the Beatles and Sibelius. It's no surprise that the New York Times named The Rest Is Noise one of the 10 Best Books of 2007. Music nerds have found their most articulate valedictorian. --Kim Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, leads a whirlwind tour from the Viennese premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 to minimalist Steve Reich's downtown Manhattan apartment. The wide-ranging historical material is organized in thematic essays grounded in personalities and places, in a disarmingly comprehensive style reminiscent of historian Otto Friedrich. Thus, composers who led dramatic lives—such as Shostakovich's struggles under the Soviet regime—make for gripping reading, but Ross treats each composer with equal gravitas. The real strength of this study, however, lies in his detailed musical analysis, teasing out—in precise but readily accessible language—the notes that link Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story to Arnold Schoenberg's avant-garde compositions or hint at a connection between Sibelius and John Coltrane. Among the many notable passages, a close reading of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes stands out for its masterful blend of artistic and biographical insight. Readers new to classical music will quickly seek out the recordings Ross recommends, especially the works by less prominent composers, and even avid fans will find themselves hearing familiar favorites with new ears. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374249393
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374249397
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (155 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #308,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This magisterial book will, for many years, remain the definitive account of classical music (or art music, if you prefer) in the twentieth century, from the time of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler to the age of Steve Reich and John Adams. Ross situates his history of an art form within the swirl of contemporary developments in culture and politics. The many individual stories of composers and their chief works are unified through the use of literary themes, the philosophical musings of Theodor Adorno and a close analysis of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faust. Along the way, Ross gives us an absolutely riveting account of the musical scene in the Third Reich, covering the composers who stayed and were complicit with the regime, as well as those artists who either fled or perished. He covers music in the concentration camps and the life of composers under Soviet dictatorship. He makes links between modern performance practice and the rise of jazz, bebop and adventurous rockers like the Beatles and Radiohead. His knowledge is encyclopedic and his research prodigous. Here and there his enthusiasms betray him. The heavy emphasis on German music as the spine of musical development turns Wagner into the main 19th century ancestor to modern music, a leit motive throughout the book; he scants the incipient modernisms of Tchaikovsky and the Russian School, the contributions of Liszt, Berlioz and other French composers. The chapter on Sibelius is so long it feels like a Bruckner symphony, ditto the scene by scene analysis of Britten's opera Peter Grimes; these sections are among the few longeurs encountered in a historical text that generally reads like a mystery novel. This book is highly recommended for anyone who is afraid of modern music but be warned, it will make you go out and compulsively expand your library of discs!
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Format: Hardcover
A history of 20th century music with the history left out, thankfully. Ross writes vividly about specific compositions and imparts his enormous enthusiasm. Everyone who dips into this book will compile a list of works to hear. His avidity is a model for other listeners: he approaches Metataseis with the same eager expectation of enjoyment as the Firebird. And happily his enthusiasm is focused solely on the music--the ideologies, manifestoes, movements and politics of 20th century classical music he approaches with extreme scepticism. He is especially good at teasing apart a composer's words from a composer's music. Naturally he has preferences: he provides several full-length portraits of Strauss and Stravinsky at different points in their long careers, and movingly profiles Shostakovich and Britten, but Schoenberg and Cage appear more as instigators than artists, and Boulez is given up as an obnoxious enigma. But overall, I can't imagine a better guide. While modernism in the visual arts has been pretty much embraced by culture at large (e.g. the crowds at MOMA or Tate Modern), musical modernism, the tradition of 20th century classical music, has not. Whatever the explanation, Alex Ross thinks it's a shame that more people don't know it and love it. He certainly loves it, and it's prompted some of the best writing on music since Bernard Shaw.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Alex Ross' excellent book is what you might call a 'social' history. He doesn't ignore the analytical side (though following recent practice, there isn't a single bit of notation in the whole book) and gives pretty good prose evocations of how a lot of music was put together--Webern's partition of a twelve tone row into three-note segments, for example--but focuses rather on the whole flow of things, on the relationships between composers and with society. He isn't afraid to quote Webern's sycophantic praise of the Third Reich, for example.

The book is non-ideological in the sense that he steps back and views the infighting and political jockeying for position from outside. It becomes clear that virtually all 20th century music is political or politicized to a considerable degree. Or suffers from politics! The truth Ross isn't afraid to recount is that a lot of 20th century composers, especially among the 'progressives', were playing the avant-garde game of achieving fame through being merely annoying. Many accounts of 20th century music, when they weren't mere chronicles, are either dryly analytical or manifestos for one camp or another (such as Rene Leibowitz' book on Schoenberg and his school).

Ross is particularly keen to rescue certain composers from the condescension of the 'progressives'. Three in particular are Sibelius, Shostakovich and Britten. Boulez comes across as a particularly nasty piece of work on the condescending side. There is a large section on Hitler's musical tastes which is surprisingly relevant because, as Ross points out, it was the Nazis and their love of certain music (and in return the loyalty a remarkable number of composers and conductors showed them, Karajan, for example) that cost 'classical' music its moral authority.
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Format: Hardcover
Alex Ross has the ability and the resources to write about the music of the 20th Century and to establish himself as the creator of the definitive volume with the publication of THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. His depth of knowledge is matched only by his ability to communicate with a writing style that places him in the echelon of our finest biographers. This book is indeed a comprehensive study of the music created in the 20th Century, but it is also a survey of all of the arts and social changes, effects of wars, industrialization, and quirks and idiosyncrasies that surfaced in that recently ended period of history: Ross may call this 'listening' to the 20th century, but is also visualizing and feeling the changes of that fascinating period.

Ross opens his survey with a detailed description of the premiere of Richard Strauss' opera SALOME and in doing so he references all of those in attendance (from Mahler to Schoenberg, the last of the great Romantics to the leader of the Modernist innovators) and focuses not only on the chances Strauss took using a libidinous libretto by the infamous Oscar Wilde to the astringent dissonances that surface in this tale of evil and necrophilia. The ballast of that evening is then followed throughout the book, a means of communicating music theory and execution in a manner that is wildly entertaining while simultaneously informative.

Ross studies the influence of nationalism in music (the German School, the French School, the British and the American Schools) and then interweaves the particular innovations by showing how each school and each composer was influenced by the simultaneous destruction and reconstruction of the world borders resulting form the wars of that century.
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