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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  7,682 ratings  ·  528 reviews
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music ...more
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published October 16th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2007)
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Best Non Fiction About Music
8th out of 799 books — 739 voters
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Mar 19, 2015 Tony rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: music
You know how you can watch a foreign language movie, without subtitles, and still enjoy the film? You may not speak German but can still tell that Hitler's pissed off. You may not speak French, but you can tell that Juliette Binoche has reached a point of existential doubt in a meretricious relationship.

This book was like that for me. I may not, even now, be able to articulate a difference between atonality and twelve-tone music (is there one?), but I love being told that "some stabbing single
This book took me way too long to read, which is a little strange because I found it very interesting and quite inspiring. I'm tempted to give it five stars, but I'm too much of a dilettante when it comes to cough, serious music to not necessarily take everything that the author is saying at face value. I do have two complaints about the books though, the first is that the author clearly dislikes the one of the few people I probably do count as an actual hero of mine. I don't hold it strongly ag ...more
The story of classical music in the 20th century is no doubt one of intense changes and an immense cast of characters. How, exactly, did we go from Mahler in the beginning of the century to Reich and Adams with a bit of Shostakovich and Stockhausen in between?

Ross takes two main approaches here - the first is a political/social context in which classical music evolved and influenced each other. His story begins in fin de siècle Vienna and that era of social experimentation, through the dictators
Alex Ross has written an encyclopedic narrative of twentieth century music with interesting biographies of principal composers, dramatic social and political changes on the world stage, and technological advances influencing how we hear the notes today.

The reader is directed to a website for a free audio companion to enhance the lyrical text. A glossary of musical terms is a supplement on another site, and opportunities to add to your collection are ample to fill a library here or in the Cloud.
This isn't something I say lightly, but pretty much everyone should consider reading Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise.* Why? Because (a) it makes for a riveting work of political and cultural history, and (b) it provides a layman's entry point into that most venerable of Western art forms—classical music.

I first became acquainted with this book in my late teens. By that time, I'd already immersed myself quite heavily in free jazz, noise, and the like. But classical music—especially the 20th century
Jonathan Barry
I think this book is best read and listened to at the same time; it really adds to it. As such, I created a Youtube playlist to go along with your read, which you can find here:

If you're looking for a listen with better sound quality and don't mind finding them yourselves (I can't blame you), then here is the list of songs that I thought captured the book:

Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 8
Claude Debussy – Arabesque I
Dec 29, 2007 Gary rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: cultural creatives, anyone interested in 20th century music / art
alex ross is one of the few remaining music critics for a major american periodical (there used to be many more, but it's a dwindling profession/art), in his case, the new yorker. he attends a concert more than once if possible, with the score and without, in order to both understand the music and feel it. and he's young, so his ears aren't burdened with decades of ear wax, "received wisdom," archaic prejudice, etc.

how rare is it to ever find anyone who can write about music!? (an impossible cha
This is a comprehensive overview of Western music in the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles in the last decade when Disney Hall opened, so I heard music by many of these composers played by both the full orchestra and by smaller groups in the Green Umbrella series. Plus there was Jacaranda in Santa Monica. Those two sources taught me to appreciate modern music, so I read this with much more experience and curiosity than I would have had fifteen years ago.

But the operati
Ross, whose articles in the New Yorker I have followed religiously for years, and continue to anticipate with a zeal otherwise reserved for The Wire, delivers a multi-layered and exhaustively researched portrait of a century's music and its reception. His account includes not only a collection of nuanced miniature biographies of composers—both the duly celebrated and the tragically neglected—and sweeping, intertextual analyses of "the music"—from jazz rags and pop songs to symphonic masterworks— ...more
Jan 28, 2008 Tosh rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the music adventurer and who credit at Amoeba Music
Alex Ross' wonderful trip to the 20th Century via the world of classical music and it's composers. As I mentioned I had very little knowledge of classical music - especially modern. I knew Glass, Reich, Satie, but overall this is pretty much a new world music wise.

Saying that this is also the history of cultural life in the 20th Century. The best chapeters deal with Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia and how they used music -and how it affected the composers of that place and time.

In a distant way
Jun 29, 2012 Lobstergirl rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Suri Cruise
Shelves: music
Ross weaves biography, history, and musical description into a pleasing synthesis, in accessible nonacademic language. He does for 20th century classical music what Niall Ferguson did for the British Empire, in Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World. Both authors are terrific storytellers.

Among the interesting subplots are the relationships (at times close, friendly, grudgingly respectful, rivalrous, prickly, or downright hostile) between various composer pairs: Strauss and Mahler, Prokofiev
I began this book almost wholly ignorant of most of its central figures. I knew that "twelve-tone music" was something controversial and supposedly inaccessible, but I didn't know what it was or if I'd ever heard any. So there may be major composers skipped, controversies skirted, opinions presented as fact; I probably wouldn't know.

What I do know is that Alex Ross is a wonderfully passionate music writer, and he did a great job tying the history of 20th century music into the cultures it came f
Tom Choi
This is a tremendous work which dares to tell the great history of music in the 20th Century. But in that it aims so high, it also falls short of its promise.

There are some great "stories" that are recounted here, in particular, the portions concerning the premiere of Strauss' "Salome"; and the spirited rivalry between Strauss and Mahler; the unlikely journeys of Schoenberg and Shostakovich in the New World; and the drama surrounding Messiaen's "Quartet". With these stories, Alex Ross demonstrat
If you don't mind reading a superficial account of the history of music told from a Cold War perspective that wouldn't have been out of place from a Barry Goldwater or a Robert McNamara, where the author treats all leftist composers with disdain verging on condescension, and omits relevant historical data in order to downplay the political beliefs of major composers, then this is exactly the book for you. For everyone else, though....

The height of the historical revisionism comes in the sections
Bob King
I heard many positive comments on this book, and being a lover of contemporary classical music, finally picked up a used copy. What's unique about the writing is that Ross mixes in just the right amount of historical context to the lively music scene of the past hundred years. You get into the heads of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Strauss and Copland -- just to name a few -- and come to understand that their musical styles were tightly woven into the politics of the time. Schoenberg and his students ...more
I'm gobbling this up. I grew up with musician parents but we never talked about music. So Alex Ross feels like the family I always wanted. My copy's studded with 3M markers and I've been on a Mahler binge since I started reading this. I want to hear every piece he mentions, which will keep me busy and happy and moved for the rest of the year. The writing's accessible, generous, and the vivid lives of the composers he discusses make for better reading than People Magazine.
Informative, but in the lest interesting way. Ross has drawn miles of footnote-material from its prison at page's bottom and relocated it to the body of the book. Fact follows fact in a dreary parade. You certainly *learn* about modern music's history, the vicissitudes suffered by its creators, the controversies dividing (irreconcilably) populists and avant-gardists, but I only care about them now, after finishing the book, because I already did when I began it. At best, this book gives you cock ...more
Nick Black
Amazon 2008-05-21, recommendation from

The second-best book I've read this year, following After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empires Since 1450. When I returned to Georgia Tech, I loaded up both the offered "History of Composers" classes, cleaved at the 1800 point and running through 1900 + a generous spoonful of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Bern. Alex Ross has elegantly and authoritatively consummated that incomplete education, with all the verbal pana
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This is hands down the best book I have read about music. Alex Ross writes about composers, their relationship with each other, and how they survive the culture swirling around them, in a way that really captured me, and I work with music for a living. It took me a long time to read because I felt obligated to listen to all the pieces he referenced.

Worth reading no matter how familiar you are with classical music. It is practically a history of the 20th century shown through the music of its cl
The two basic claims of this book are blatant lies: the first being that music is the only 20th century art form that hasn't been embraced and the second that this book is aimed at people with only a passing interest in classical music. Just because Jackson Pollock paintings sell for millions doesn't mean most people don't think they're crap. Similarly, there are plenty of 20th century compositions that are in the repertoire. And seriously, this book is clearly aimed at music snobs. It also suff ...more
I stumbled across this amazing 2008 book in my search for understanding the relationship between a contemporary culture and its corresponding art, never suspecting the role government and politics have played in directing the course of change. How innocent could I be? I know “he who pays the piper calls the tune” – but who would have suspected the piper was the government and politics hiding behind benevolent foundations?

Quoting: “The period from the mid-thirties onward marked the onset of the m
One of the most compelling books I've ever read and this is coming from a guy who has actively listened to barely any classical music and spends most of his time alternating between Yo La Tengo's squalling guitar solos and Ice Cube's hostile credos. The book is such a thorough look at art and the cultural history of the 20th century that I believe after having finished it I will become not only a more attentive listener but also a more careful reader and film-watcher.
It is a brilliant cultural history of 20th century classical music. A real tour de force. I could nit-pick at the details, but Ross managed to create a compelling narrative out of a fractured century of disparate musical styles and trends. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century classical music. Rarely does one encounter a music critic who is as exceptionally musically sensitive as this, and who is also such a fine writer. Bravo, Mr. Ross, bravo!
A nice well-rounded history of 20th century art music. I listened to the audiobook, and it seemed a shame to be listening to a book about music and not be able to hear any examples. Luckily the author has put up a listening guide online. Overall impression: most composers are self-important dickwads. Especially Boulez.
Mikael Lind
The BEST book on contemporary music history. So entertaining and alive, so interesting and challenging. Being a composer myself, I have always had a kind of love-hate relationship towards a lot of contemporary classical music. I love many of the ideas of Stockhausen, Boulez and others, but don't always like how the outcome turned out. So I'm intrigued by a lot of modern classical music, but when at home, I'd rather put on a record with Purcell or Dufay.

Ross' book explains the background to the c
Barnaby Thieme
This ambitious, thrilling guide to notational music in the twentieth century admirably succeeds in its many goals. Alex Ross, recent recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, is an accomplished music critic of the New Yorker. He maintains one of the most readable blogs on the internet:

In this his first book Ross traces the development of music from Strauss's epoch-inaugurating "Salome" through to the work of John Adams, considering modernism, jazz, neo-classicism,
Ok, so I had been reading this steadily throughout June, got within fifty pages of the end, got distracted, and didn't pick it up again until the day it was due, on which I finished it and simultaneously remembered how great it is.

The Rest is Noise is a gossipy, readable, detailed, utterly enthusiastic, and inspiring intro to a century of modern music. The first time I tried reading it, a few years ago, I had to return it to the library while I was still in the second chapter, because I kept sto
Lucas Miller
Jun 17, 2010 Lucas Miller rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: only for people highly interested in classical/art music
I don't give up on many books but, after 15 hours of listening and still 6+ hours I shut this one down. I got this very cheap on Audible; perhaps I didn't read the description well enough but it is basically only about classical/composed music. Jazz is covered only in relation to its influence on classical (e.g. Rhapsody in Blue). Popular music is only mentioned occassionally. I kept thinking the book would get to other forms of music eventually but it did not appear to be so.

Overall, I don't t
A stellar tour of 20th century serious music.

I approached this book hoping to learn more about 20th century music from an admirably fluid and entertaining writer. Ross' book exceeded my expectations, opening up whole universes of music I might never have encountered otherwise.

Writing about musical innovation and invention in a way that comes across meaningfully to readers is a massive challenge, particularly if they (like me) only know just a bit about the craft of music. Spotify was an absolute
As a recovering Band Nerd, I assumed that this book, subtitled “Listening to The Twentieth Century,” would be an enjoyable companion to my amateur musical education. I have had the privilege of performing hundreds of renowned musical compositions, from Gershwin to Hindemith, and even conducted several hundred marching musicians playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Attending grade school in Connecticut, I can even remember a relative of Charles Ives visiting our music class and telling us disinte ...more
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if I'm not really into classical music... 12 144 Apr 27, 2013 08:22AM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. From 1992 to 1996 he wrote for the New York Times. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and became a national bestseller.
More about Alex Ross...
Listen to This Best Music Writing 2011 The Rest Is Noise Series: Doctor Faust: Schoenberg, Debussy, and Atonality The Rest Is Noise Series: The Golden Age: Strauss, Mahler, and the Fin de Siecle The Rest Is Noise Series: Beethoven Was Wrong: Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists

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