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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

4.08  ·  Rating Details  ·  8,917 Ratings  ·  571 Reviews
The scandal over modern music has not died down. While paintings by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, shocking musical works from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of ...more
ebook, 640 pages
Published October 16th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2007)
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Andrew Bunyea No! The book will be a lot more enjoyable if you listen to some music by the composers that come up while you read it though.
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Nov 30, 2015 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, top-10-2015
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
Jan 18, 2008 Greg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 12, 2015 kaelan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
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
Dec 22, 2013 Jonathan Barry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, music
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 it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 23, 2015 Caroline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jan 17, 2008 Alex rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 05, 2008 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
Bob King
Dec 05, 2008 Bob King rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 10, 2008 Pia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
David M
Feb 27, 2016 David M rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I myself know very little about music, but I do like to listen to it. I like to listen to it, and I find the xxth century debates over tonality fascinating. Ross unsurprisingly takes the liberal, ecumenical point of view (he does write for the New Yorker after all); I myself want to be able appreciate a wide variety of different kinds of art, and to my untrained ear it's not obvious why Schoenberg should represent revolution and Stravinsky reaction. Nonetheless, part of me can't help admiring th ...more
Brooke Shirts
Apr 19, 2009 Brooke Shirts rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Alex Ross is, in my opinion, one of the better writers for The New Yorker. This history of 20th-century art music is quite a feat: how to make some of the world's most difficult music accessible and understandable to the average music fan?

Really, even though Ross' ability to describe the music and explain its placement and importance in history is stellar, I was frustrated with my unfamiliarity with some of the pieces he describes. Here's a sample, from a description of Schoenberg:

"The music ha
Nick Black
Jun 16, 2008 Nick Black rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Vrixton Phillips
Jun 23, 2015 Vrixton Phillips rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Word to the wise, this book is not for someone who knows little to nothing of 20th Century classical music. It also helps if you have some music theory under your belt, because Ross often delves into musical play-by-play [which is a good reminder if you've heard a piece before, but lost on someone who hasn't yet.] It's more like a book for a 20th century music lover who wants to learn why or how certain movements popped up, such as dodecaphonalism or minimalism.

It does contain enjoyable tales of
Jun 01, 2011 Brett rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 24, 2015 Jeannine rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 05, 2015 Niall rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 02, 2013 Bruce rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
Apr 18, 2016 Alan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, music
Over 600 pages, classical music critic Alex Ross takes the reader on a breathless tour of twentieth-century composition. The book works roughly chronologically but also splits into sections charting various artistic movements that have dominated contemporary music: Schoenberg's influential twelve-tone compositional system; the influence of jazz on classical composition; and the ongoing dialectical tension between the urge to populism and the purity of the obscure. What works particularly well is ...more
Bill Arning
Aug 22, 2016 Bill Arning rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Such a pleasure to read this work of genius S L O W L Y

Every page of this incredibly vivid guidebook to music requires that you read a subchapter and then spend a day or two just listening and then reread the subchapter. While that might sound like an unpleasant homework assignment to Some for those of us who are truly obsessed with the joys music provides it is the most profound pleasure. Many composers who I thought I knew and liked for the right reasons I have learned so much more about (some
May 15, 2013 Hermine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Angus Mcfarlane
Apr 02, 2016 Angus Mcfarlane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, music, reviewed
Is there irony intended in the title, a gentle humour at the 20th century quest to write music different to what had gone before, including pieces which were only silence - written as bars of rests. If so, it is perhaps the most accessible, light-hearted writing in the book. As the sub-title explains, this is a history of the last century or so of orchestral music, and it's pretty heavy going, like much of the music it describes.

My daughter bought this book on kindle as a text for her music degr
Barnaby Thieme
May 22, 2009 Barnaby Thieme rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, favorites
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,
Sep 10, 2012 Shoshana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult, nonfiction
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
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if I'm not really into classical music... 12 146 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.
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