Bruce's Reviews > The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise by Alex  Ross
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Sep 10, 09

Read in May, 2009

Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise is a more or less chronological narrative of 20th century classical music, beginning with Richard Strauss and more or less ending with John Adams. Initially culled from Ross’ various New Yorker essays, concert reviews, and liner notes, Ross has done a nice job of seaming the whole together to form a more or less continuous narrative that only rarely falls into the trap of one darned thing after another. There are few epiphanies for those already well-versed in musical goings-on from the last 100 or so years, but he does a nice job of explaining stylistic change and the evolution and interaction of artists, audiences, commerce, and politics. To Ross’ credit he even takes on directly the meaningless brand that the words “classical music” have become (although one waits until the first page of the Epilogue for it):

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands…. Likewise, some of the liveliest reactions to twentieth-century and contemporary classical music have come from the pop arena,”
he writes, having earlier pointed out
“the supercompact twelve-tone material of Webern’s Piano Variations mutates over a generation or two into La Monte Young’s Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. Morton Feldman’s indeterminate notation leads circuitously to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Steve Reich’s gradual process infiltrates chart-topping albums by the bands Talking Heads and U2. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of musical experience.”
Okay, so he forgot to name check Peter Gabriel’s work from the late ‘70s and early ’80s (among many others), but let that be. The point here is that music is a crowded marketplace. Here it is the last quarter of 2009 and we find Whitney Houston struggling to make a comeback at the same time that The Beatles continue to be repackaged and resold. Anyone listened to any La Monte Young recently?

So why should we care to read about a self-defined art that includes the following score (in its entirety) by Young? “Composition 1960 #10: Draw a straight line and follow it.” (See p. 494.) Or a notorious four minute and 33 second silent performance piece by John Cage whose only instruction on the page is “Tacet,” but which could as easily have been “Time out?” (And in all fairness to Cage, he wrote a goodly quantity of fine piano, prepared-piano, and other works that most would regard not merely as music but as music of listenable quality and originality.) Or a bully of an intellectual con artist like Pierre Boulez, who, notwithstanding his championing of difficult contemporary music as a conductor, nonetheless used his position at IRCAM to so browbeat academics into accepting only hyper-serialist music as “correct” that composers as eminent as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland nearly suffered breakdowns for their more tonal ears and the potential success of works by composers as compelling as Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and Jean Sibelius was suppressed for years.

Ross cannot and does not provide an answer to the “why should we care” question, and so this book comes across on the whole as fairly episodic (days in the life of Strauss, Shostakovich, Schonberg, Stravinsky, Britten, and so on) as the decades vaguely roll by. I won’t re-beat the horse I’ve flogged in many other of my book reviews about what I see as false critical/commercial distinctions in music. Anyone who has read one of these knows well my arguments that those claiming distinctions beyond personal taste for the various record store bin categories music say more about the perceived relative socio-economic status of the commentator than the works in question. I appreciate that Ross seems to share this viewpoint: he refers briefly in his chapter “Invisible Men” (about American composers generally) to the blatant racism that for some reason excludes African Americans from larger discussions of contributions to music in the 20th Century and yet proceeds himself to commit the same sin, writing at p. 123, “The great African-American orchestral works that Dvorak prophesied are mostly absent, their promise transmuted into jazz” as though jazz were more an alchemical accident rather than a signal artistic achievement. He likewise seeks to remove the false barriers between Broadway and opera (both styles of music theater, and in some cases indistinguishable from one another), but then relegates the former first to “populism” (p. 287) before dismissing it as “commercialism” by the end of the book.

This book is long, but felt longer. Too many sections fail to deliver on the substance that Ross’ style promises (so much hype about Olivier Messiaen’s long shadow as prolific composer and influential teacher, yet surprisingly so little insight into the man himself via biography or selective parsing of key works). As such I can only recommend it in smallish doses, as passing entertainment for the pot, where the defects perceived in the grand plan are more easily overlooked.
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message 1: by Nullifidian (last edited Jan 24, 2015 01:25AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Nullifidian Boulez, who, notwithstanding his championing of difficult contemporary music as a conductor, nonetheless used his position at IRCAM to so browbeat academics into accepting only hyper-serialist music as “correct” that composers as eminent as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland nearly suffered breakdowns for their more tonal ears and the potential success of works by composers as compelling as Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and Jean Sibelius was suppressed for years.

Just to clarify: this is a parody of reactionary dribblings about modern music, correct?

If it's intended seriously, I think you have some severe problems with chronology (among other things). I'm not sure how an institute founded in 1977 could suppress the work of a Finnish composer who died twenty years earlier, nor how they could have possibly caused such a man as Copland to suffer a breakdown when he had already written many pieces in a modernist idiom early in his career and returned to experimenting with modernism over a dozen decades before IRCAM was founded (I guess Connotations isn't in your CD rack). As for Samuel Barber, the poor reception that his opera Antony and Cleopatra received was far more effective at suppressing his output than a single institution located an entire ocean away. And Menotti seemed to be so unaware of the attempt to suppress his works that he went on to compose nine more operas after IRCAM was founded. But if they hadn't founded it, he would have written 29 more, right?

Furthermore, you've managed to accuse Boulez of imposing "hyper-serialism" on an unwilling compositional community (how, I'd like to know?) through IRCAM when IRCAM was founded precisely because Boulez and other composers had had enough of serial experiments and were taking their music in new directions. If you can listen to ...explosante-fixe... in any version and tell me that it's serialist, I will advise you to get your ears checked.


Bruce Sounds as though you're much more of a Boulez fan than I am. Thanks for the suggestion regarding ...explosante fixe..., a work with which I was not previously familiar. After a few YouTube samplings, I would agree that it does not come across as serial in its latter versions; ironically for a work that was intended (originally) as a tribute to Stravinsky, it sounds much more like Debussy (at least in this version). However, it would seem that the work had its origins both as an aleatoric exercise and with a seven-note serial row. I don't find this bad, per se, these are as legitimate compositional techniques as any others; what matters to me is the end product. Given that Boulez revised his work substantially over the course of 20 years, it would seem as though his thoughts about the original ideas contained in the work evolved as his approach to music or this piece in particular changed. There's probably an interesting story there, if you know it, please pass it along.

I do have the Copland, actually, it's the last track on a CD of his works that I bought primarily for El Salon Mexico and his Music for the Theatre, but it's true that I don't listen to it much. A brief re-listen reminds me of the dramatic filler Bernstein used to fill out the "Tahiti" portions of what became A Quiet Place, but that could just be because Bernstein is conducting the version I have.

It was 6 years ago that I read the Ross, so I'm not sure I'm the one to blame for the chronology issues you raise. I'll see if I can't address your other criticisms a bit later.


message 3: by Bruce (last edited Jan 27, 2015 05:53PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bruce That Boulez was something of an intellectual bully in touting a variety of strict serialist techniques has been documented in a variety of places, not just Ross' book. He even took pride in admitting it. And you're right, his influence certainly would have preceded his involvement with IRCAM.

Regarding the suppression of performances (as is claimed relative to Sibelius, et al.), self-censorship of compositional activity (Bernstein), and rejection of commission opportunities, I can back Ross' assertions by offering two anecdotal, personal observations of my own. First, as a music composition student in the '80s, I had at least two professors who strictly discouraged tonality as "outmoded" and "unacademic." (That said, I had at least three others, including William Karlins, himself a serialist, who were much more supportive.) Fortunately for the furtherance of my own tastes, one of them allowed me to skate by using the Krenek system (which allows for repetition of notes in rows, thereby facilitating the creation of seemingly tonic patterns), but I still found my experiences at their feet stultifying.

Again, this is not to bash serialism in music, per se, or even atonality and offbeat, asymmetrical, or arhythmic works (the latter of which my ears tend to gravitate toward). I was privileged to work one year at the National Endowment for the Arts and there was definitely a movement for a while to dismiss tonal composers as "unserious." I recall one composer who was a grant-maker's darling, because he hit upon a way to bring strict serial techniques to wider audiences: ostensibly by marrying them to traditional dance forms (for example, setting his rows against a recognizable, repeated tango or waltz pattern). Some of it was quite fun to listen to, but I didn't think the tone rows the melodies and harmonies were built from had any greater merit in ensemble than, say, one of the dissonant marches Charles Ives built out of multiple tonal centers.

I confess that the only works of Boulez in my collection are "Le Marteau sans maître," "Sonatine" from the same disc, and La Sorgue (from "Le Soleil des Eaux") off a sampler disc. The rhythmic stuff in "maitre" interests me, but none of them get much airplay on my MP3 player. Frankly, if I play "Le Marteau" at all, it's really to get at Messiaen's "7 Haïkaï." I enjoy Messiaen tremendously (among many whose expressions are atonal) and regularly return to his works (yes, even his birdsong imitations and organ pieces). I adore Berg's Lulu -- now there's a great, strict serialist.

We may have to disagree about the extent to which Boulez deserves credit or blame for promoting a serialism uber alles conceit in the classical world, but I don't think there's any disputing his influence. All this is quite apart from the merits of his own output, about which tastes will differ, and which would certainly vary from piece to piece. You've already brought "...explosante" to my attention. As a Boulez admirer, perhaps you can suggest other works of his I might sample?


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