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The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

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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 still sends ripples of unease through audiences. At the same time, its influence can be felt everywhere. Atonal chords crop up in jazz. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalism has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.

The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.

640 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Alex Ross

29 books367 followers
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. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Royal Philharmonic Society Creative Communication Award; appeared on the New York Times's list of the ten best books of year; and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the Samuel Johnson prizes. Ross has received a Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center, fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin and the Banff Centre, three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, and an honorary doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music. He has also served as a McGraw Professor in Writing at Princeton University. In 2008 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. His next book, an essay collection titled Listen to This, will appear in fall 2010. A native of Washington, DC, Ross now lives in Manhattan. In 2005 he married the actor and filmmaker Jonathan Lisecki.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 846 reviews
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,516 followers
November 30, 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 notes" in a second movement are like "a knife in Stalin's heart."

This book is Music in the Twentieth Century. Or, the Twentieth Century, with music. "Crescendo" "più forte" "Silence". It starts with Richard Strauss conducting Salome. Puccini took the train north; Mahler et ux attended. Schoenberg and Berg were there. Hitler said he was. And if you recall: There was even a fictional character present--Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, the tale of a composer in league with the devil.

Leverkühn looms large in this history, a twisting of Evil with Music, and a twisting of Music and the human soul. The notes I heard kept asking "What's next?" and "What's next?" In slow movements, and fast.

There's some tabloid stuff here: that Alma Mahler, what a tart; that Pierre Boulez, what a jerk. But it's also a Music Appreciation course, and Alex Ross clearly knows his material. He attempts to make this inter-active by offering a website - www.therestisnoise.com - with click-and-play excerpts. I found that cumbersome and chose my own inter-activity, playing music from my collection or youtubing. I'll annoy you in a bit with some links.

Ross has an ear for humor too: The joke went around that Webern had introduced the marking pensato: Don't play the note, only think it.

I didn't always hear what Ross heard. There's Sibelius in Barber? But then he didn't hear Gorecki in Barber; or didn't say so. That's part of the fun.

Let me break into some dissonant chords now and give you fragments from the book, things I learned.

-- Sibelius remains a big deal in his native land; his face was on every coin until Finland converted to the Euro. The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly 200 times per capita what the United States spends on the National Endowment of the Arts. I'm not saying that's wrong; just sayin'.

-- Ruth Crawford Seeger was Pete Seeger's stepmother. She created some (to my ears) really interesting avant garde music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqz9C... . She stopped composing when her Communist husband, a formulator of "dissonant counterpoint", told her "women can't compose symphonies." Oh, Artemisia.

-- Perhaps I would have understood Josef Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls better if I knew that it was Stalin who once mused that writers should be "engineers of human souls."

-- Musical luminaries descended on Paris in 1952 for the Masterpieces of the XXth Century festival. It was thought to be funded by Julius Fleischmann, the yeast-and-gin millionaire. In reality, the whole event was financed by the CIA.

There is a bit of The Emperor's New Clothes to the excesses of art, music included. A century that started with Strauss, Mahler and Sibelius ended with:

-- John Cage's 4'33": The original score was written out on conventional music paper, tempo + 60, in three movements. David Tudor walked onstage, sat down at the piano, opened the piano lid, and did nothing, except to close the lid and open it again at the beginning of each subsequent movement. The music was the sound of the surrounding space. ... It was a piece that anyone could have written, as skeptics never failed to point out, but, as Cage seldom failed to respond, no one else did.

-- Luigi Nono's signature piece, Il canto sospeso, took texts from anti-Fascist resistance fighters - "I am not afraid of death," "I will be calm and at peace facing the execution squad," "I go in the belief of a better life for you" - and broke them into syllables which he scattered throughout the various choral parts. By making the words less accessible, he believed, they would matter more.

-- David Tudor, attacking a piano with boxing gloves.

-- Dieter Schnebel, who in his work Abfälle I,1 invited audience members to contribute to the performance by conversing, making noises of approval or disapproval, coughing, and moving chairs.

-- And Alvin Lucier, who in Music for Solo Performer attached electrodes to his head and broadcast his brain's alpha waves to loudspeakers around the room, the low-frequency tones causing nearby percussion instruments to vibrate.

I'm not kidding.

And yet, Ross opened up much of the "new" music to me. This was sometimes accomplished just by my own perusal of works by a composer that Ross mentions. Henry Cowell, for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLkg-.... Yes, elbows. Some of Cowell's pieces are all inside the piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3CPr....

Delightfully, there are composers I'd never heard of who intrigued, after some exploration. Ross notes six "significant voices" in contemporary music:

-- Franghiz Ali-Zadeh of Azerbaijan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nevnq...

-- Chen Yi of China: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVFZL...

-- Unsuk Chin of South Korea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vqiq...

-- Sofia Gubaidulina of Russia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37e3p...

-- Kaija Saariaho of Finland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkmzX...

-- Pauline Oliveros of the United States: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rdnX...

Too late for Ruth Crawford Seeger, or Artemisia for that matter, but all six are women.

The Twentieth Century. You may think of Rothko paintings. Think of a musical piece written by Morton Feldman, mourning his friend's death: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wHuh....

The Twentieth Century. When classical music takes a drug and goes Rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffr0o.... That's right. Take a walk on the wild side.

The Twentieth Century. I'll let Steve Goodman sing us out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ_3w...

Profile Image for Jonathan Barry.
25 reviews
December 22, 2013
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: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=...

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
Claude Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht
Anton Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky – Rite of Spring
Darius Milhaud – Scaramouche
Will Marion Cook – Swing Along!
Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question
George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 2
Paul Hindemith - Sonate per viola e pianoforte
Louis Armstrong – Mack the Knife
Arnold Schoenberg – Jakobsleiter
Alban Berg – Lulu Suite
Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5
Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring
John Cage – Music of Changes
Karlheinz Stockhausen – Telemusik
Benjamin Britten – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”
Olivier Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time
Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel
John Adams – Common Tones in Simple Time

Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,844 followers
January 18, 2008
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 against him that he finds Adorno to (what's the word), not necessarily wrong, but some kind of extremist snob for lack of a better word. Every time Adorno makes an appearance on these pages he comes across like a rapid attack dog of anti-everything except for strict Schoenberg non-mass appeal. Which might be true, I've never really delved into his music writings too deeply, but the picture of him as an enfant terrible is I like a bit of a cartoonish exaggeration.
The second complaint I would have of the book is that it kind of stops short of being a history of 20th century music and kind of peters out around 1976 with Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. A few other composers are talked about and works that they release in the same year, but all talk of the last quarter of the century is treated in a very fragmentary and stilted manner. Maybe there isn't much to talk about, but the style of the book changes in the last fifty pages or so in a way that makes the very end of the book read like a series of notes the author made on a handful of composers and records. In this last section there are also name droppings of pop artists like Radiohead, Sonic Youth and Bjork, which pulls together the history of serious music with pop music, but without doing much more than dropping the names in the swirl of the kind of chaotic finish.
The author also uses the phrase 'moshpit of the mind' which is almost totally inexcusable in the context it's given in, and actually shouldn't be used by anyone. It's moments like that which seem to make the author trying to hard to sound hip, but there isn't anything hip about using the word moshpit, and really the only people who would ever say something like that are someone's dad who heard the word and thinks it's what with it people are saying. I can't hold this against the author too strongly though.
All in all I really enjoyed this book, and it's treatment of pre-World War 2 music especially in Germany was very informative to me. I have a feeling that anyone seriously into modern music will find the book to be missing some of their favorites, or think the book treats certain movements too quickly, but as a general overview of a chaotic century's musical trends this book seems to do it's job just fine.
Profile Image for Paul Christensen.
Author 6 books123 followers
February 13, 2021
This book could be subtitled: ‘Musicians who did stuff after Wagner, with wildly varied results’. Wagner hovers like a ghost over this work, the Great Father whose achievements couldn’t be surpassed in toto, only in miniature via crazier and crazier endeavours.

The composers range from deep genius (Debussy, Sibelius) to sterile fapping (too many to name), but whether one loves or hates their music is irrelevant as this is primarily a work of social history.

The author describes ‘classical’ music in the 2000s as a ‘sunken cathedral’, i.e. an interregnum, and who knows what comes next.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,546 followers
October 5, 2016
Who says history is boring? And who says classical music died with Wagner? Well I have actually always liked history but was largely unfamiliar with 20c classical music until I read Ross' excellent The Rest is Noise. Alex Ross does an amazing job of writing the history of the 20c in classical music starting at the waning but overwhelming influence of Wagner on early 20c composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky through the onset of atonal music and on through the wars and the crazy 60's. I had NO idea that classical music was so incredibly rich and interesting particularly in the previous century. I don't want to spoil anything here because it is incredibly readable and you will learn on nearly every page. I am still trying to get through all the recordings that he posted on his book's website (http://www.therestisnoise.com) which could serve as a fore-taste of how great this book is. Don't walk but run to amazon and grab a copy. I liked it so much that I bought the sequel Listen to This...happy reading.
Profile Image for kaelan.
260 reviews304 followers
November 17, 2017
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 variety—had thus far eluded my understanding. Like many otherwise adventurous young listeners, I felt overwhelmed by the plethora of composers, performers and recordings to choose from. And in this regard, avant-jazz was—comparatively speaking—pretty straightforward: all you needed to do was track yourself down a copy of Interstellar Space or Free Jazz or Spiritual Unity. With composed music, the problem was knowing where the hell you should even start.

Enter The Rest Is Noise. Over the course of fifteen chapters, which trace the development of modern classical from Strauss and Mahler up until the present age, Ross examines the seminal musical works of the 20th century, as well as the social and political contexts that birthed them. It's all terribly fascinating stuff. But history only makes up one side of the coin, and the book concludes with a list of recommended recordings (a more comprehensive list may be found on Ross' website) to guide the inexperienced listener through the disorienting terrain of aural source material.

Yet this book doesn't only tell you what to listen to; it also teaches you how to listen. Gifted with an arresting propensity for translating sounds into words, Ross occasionally devotes a few pages to a single piece of music, explaining how a particular snare drum pattern in a Shostakovich symphony, say, might function as a subtle critique of authoritarianism, or how the retrograde rhythms in a Messiaen chamber work serve to hinder the audience's perception of time. And by means of these descriptions, Ross deftly inculcates the art of deep listening, of knowing how to successfully parse a swirling miasma of tones, textures and timbres.

In short, The Rest Is Noise is an effective gateway drug into the wild and mystifying world of 20th century classical music. And so I say, "Bravo, bravo!," as I rise for a standing ovation.

(P.S. If anyone would like some classical recommendations, shoot me a message and I'd be more than happy to oblige!)

* Save for perhaps the illiterate and the hopelessly tone-deaf.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
560 reviews7,442 followers
July 15, 2019
Alex Ross is one of my must-read New Yorker writers. Whenever a new piece of his comes out I know I'm going to be smarter than I was before. To me, he is the music critic. The Rest Is Noise is often referred to as the book on 20th century classical music. And I can only further perpetrate that sentiment.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,864 followers
July 20, 2020
This book is made so much more enjoyable because of the Internet--one of the few books you can say that about--because of the availability of samples of the music on the book's web site. I enjoyed the first chapters best because the author allowed me to imagine what a momentous event it must have been, in an age before recorded music, to be in the audience when a composer's music first premiered.
Profile Image for Gary.
Author 16 books84 followers
December 29, 2007
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 challenge on the face of it, if one is going to say anything more than technical data like, "... the dotted sixteenths in bar25 mirror the attenuated chromatic intonation ..." etc etc)

his grasp of the material is sure; his writing is tonic, refreshing; his insights are sharp; his tone, fresh. he's on the dime.

he's been working on this book for some time and finally it's out. (there are a few inevitable repetitions here and there, in stitching the whole thing together, but — hey!)

hands-down, THE best book on 20th-century Western music you'll ever find in THIS one.

AND you can enhance your reading by visiting his website, where he's posted representative selections, for each chapter, as well as his always lively blog

hear, here!

Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 13 books627 followers
August 9, 2019
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 the book reminds me of "The City of Nets" in that there are many stories being told - because some of them are real characters - but also for me there were some dry areas. Not sure because of the text or the writer's focus, or maybe it's just the subject matter. But overall I think this book is pretty essential in not only music history but also how music interacts with society/culture of that time. Ross is really good at giving the big picture.
Profile Image for Asclepiade.
124 reviews58 followers
August 6, 2018
Immagino che curiosità e gioia elettrizzassero un amante della musica dei secoli scorsi appena fosse venuto a sapere che per l’imminente carnevale sarebbe comparsa sulle scene la nuova opera di Vivaldi o di Vinci, di Rossini o di Verdi, o che nella tal chiesa Corelli o Tartini avrebbero sonato una nuova composizione per violino; quanto a Frescobaldi o Bach, improvvisavano all’organo praticamente ogni domenica. Se oggi compare su d’un programma di sala un pezzo di musica contemporanea, magari in prima esecuzione, la reazione di parecchi frequentatori di sale da concerto è spesso invece: “Oddio, mica durerà troppo?”; e se il brano, poi, o il suo autore sono già noti, l’ascoltarli con pazienza sarà guardata da costoro come onorevole ammenda penitenziale che renderà viepiù bello e amabile il godimento di Brahms, Mozart o Monteverdi. La musica contemporanea, insomma, è vista con timore, con diffidenza: non credo che sia mai capitato in alcun periodo e contesto culturale; anzi, di solito, sia presso i popoli primitivi, sia dove si sono formate una tecnica e un’arte musicale raffinate, ciò che si è sempre ascoltato è la musica del proprio tempo, mentre quella più antica, posto che si sia inventato il modo di tramandarla, è usata in genere a scopo di studio, oppure se ne mantiene in vita qualche scampolo per motivi religiosi o celebrativi.
Questo saggio di Alex Ross non solo traccia una storia della musica del Novecento che, sebbene poderosa, è molto agile e di facile lettura, ma aiuta il lettore non specialista – che di fatto è, in genere, proprio quello che non riesce a capire e ad apprezzare la musica novecentesca di tradizione colta – a comprendere perché si sia formata tra compositori e pubblico una barriera foriera d’incomprensioni e incomunicabilità. Dalle pagine di Ross esce peraltro confermata una mia impressione: che cioè mentre molte musiche le quali sonavano sperimentali e rivoluzionarie al momento del debutto, magari anche suscitando scandali, come avvenne a Stravinsky col Sacre, furono poi di seguito accettate dal pubblico, e sono diventate a loro volta pezzi classici come le composizioni di Beethoven o di Haydn, è soltanto qualcuno dei filoni musicali del secolo scorso, entro un mosaico di stili e concezioni ben più ampio e sfaccettato, il vero responsabile della disaffezione e dell’ostilità del pubblico medio verso la musica contemporanea nel suo complesso.
Mi viene in mente al proposito il titolo di uno dei paragrafi della biografia di Bach scritta da Alberto Basso: Fra ars e scientia; in troppi musicisti del Novecento s’è fatta troppa scientia e poca o punta ars; anzi, a un certo punto lo scrivere musica comprensibile o che potesse procurare piacere all’ascoltatore fu visto come un esempio di cattivo gusto, di Kitsch, di bieca prostituzione estetica da trattare con esecrazione e scherno. L’intellettualismo petulante di certi musicisti s’è anche sfogato in un’altra direzione un po’ diversa ma parallela, assumendo a mo’ di assioma l’idea che per essere moderno e profondo il compositore debba solo e sempre esprimere il Weltschmerz, la disperazione, il nichilismo, la lacerazione; a dare manforte venivano anche personaggi come Adorno, che io, per il gracchiare monotono, aggrondato e funereo che lo distingue spesso e volentieri, amo definire la zitella dodecafonica: e proprio lui, che adorava tanto Bach, ad ogni pagina dimostra di non capirlo affatto, ché Bach, e nell’Arte della Fuga, seppe scrivere pezzi al contempo di altissima speculazione e di gradevolissimo ascolto; Piero Buscaroli ricordò una volta che il tema del Contrapunctus IX si può tranquillamente fischiettare. La responsabilità di quest’atteggiamento arrogante e autolesionista è di chiara origine tedesca: e della proverbiale Tiefe teutonica rappresenta in effetti la caricatura e il pervertimento: col rischio anche di travolgerne i capofila, a cominciare da Schoenberg, i quali dopotutto scrissero sì musica difficile, ma non radicalmente inascoltabile o respingente.
Ross si rivela molto equilibrato, evitando sia l’incensazione acritica delle avanguardie in quanto avanguardistiche, sia l’apocalittica condanna del reazionario secondo cui dopo il tardo romanticismo restano soltanto rovina e brutture: che ciò derivi dal suo pragmatismo americano o da semplici motivi anagrafici (è mio coetaneo, e per noi diventa più facile, rispetto a chi è nato qualche lustro prima, sottrarci al fascino conturbante ma paralizzante della visione storica, diffusa fino un po’ di anni fa, secondo cui fuori dalla Seconda Scuola Viennese e da Darmstadt ci sarebbe il nulla), è un equilibrio che non si loderà mai abbastanza, soprattutto se, come qui, va unito a un’eminente limpidezza espositiva, a una capacità divulgativa davvero coinvolgente, ma scevra da gigionerie o eccessive semplificazioni, e da una finezza di analisi che aiuta davvero a capire opere di grande complessità, magari cogliendovi anche particolari fondamentali di cui non al mero ascolto, se non si è musicisti, non ci si accorge.
La conoscenza del Novecento musicale che l’autore dimostra è davvero enciclopedica, quantunque ne resti escluso, tanto per dire, il Novecento italiano, invero poco conosciuto anche in Italia: benché troviamo citati Dallapiccola, Menotti, Berio e Nono, nessuna loro opera è analizzata in modo approfondito come avviene con capolavori di altre scuole; può anche darsi che nel Novecento nostrano di capolavori non ce ne siano affatto, a parte quelli di musicisti, come Puccini, che però con le scuole e le tendenze qui studiate hanno poche attinenze, ma su ciò io non ho elementi per poter giudicare. Piuttosto caotici e carenti mi sembrano viceversa i capitoli finali dell’opera, scritti forse di fretta e con minor ispirazione, per dovere d’ufficio: ma poiché si tratta d’una parte dopotutto esigua nel complesso del saggio, a mio avviso non ne sminuisce la qualità, che resta pur sempre molto elevata.
Ross inoltre ama molto l’aneddotica, della quale si serve in maniera saggia e discreta sia per introdurre o rendere palesi collegamenti, contatti ed eventi salienti, sia per vivificare l’esposizione dando anche conto del lato umano dei compositori esaminati, attraverso particolari della loro biografia. Per me ne vengono fuori numerose conferme. Ad esempio, dagli episodî qui rammentati trova conferma la mia impressione che Schoenberg fosse una persona mentalmente disturbata e anche difficilmente frequentabile con piacere: è sempre andato di moda il dare addosso a Richard Strauss per le sue contiguità col nazismo, d’altronde meno costanti e ossequiose rispetto a quelle di tanti suoi colleghi, ma in ogni caso Strauss rispetto a Schoenberg era, nonostante il suo egotismo, un mostro di simpatia; l’inventore della dodecafonia era paranoico, acrimonioso, saccente, malevolo, in guerra eterna col mondo e con gli uomini, perennemente travolto da un’altissima opinione di sé al limite, e a volte anche oltre il limite del caricaturale: come attesta un piccolo carteggio edito anni fa anche in Italia, riuscì a trascinare un riluttante Thomas Mann in una guerra inutilmente assurda, trattandolo da miserevole plagiario per avere indicato l’Adrian Leverkühn del Doctor Faustus quale inventore d’una tecnica musicale praticamente uguale alla dodecafonia (e non mi tolgo dalla testa che, come certi particolari della storia sembrano attestare, a soffiare sul fuoco intervenisse anche Alma Werfel vedova Mahler, che col marito viveva in esilio a Los Angeles vicino ai Mann e a Schoenberg), ed è solo una delle diverse storie tristemente ridicole che si possono riferire su tanto personaggio. Altro modello di antipatia difficilmente superabile, Pierre Boulez: ma mentre Schoenberg peggiorava con l’età, Boulez diede il peggio di sé, per settarismo e intemperanze intellettuali, negli anni giovanili; un secolo prima, gli sarebbero fioccate addosso le sfide a duello. Eppure non tutti i rivoluzionarî furono così bellicosi: John Cage sarà pure stato un provocatore nella musica, ma di persona doveva essere un simpatico zuzzurellone; in Italia divenne perfino concorrente di Lascia o raddoppia?, gareggiando come esperto di funghi, ma di ciò mi sembra che Ross non parli. Peraltro Alex Ross non si limita a raccontare particolari bizzarri o curiosi: traccia, per esempio, anche un ritratto molto bello e sensibile d’un musicista dall’animo delicato e umbratile come Benjamin Britten. In quanto americano, naturalmente Ross è particolarmente interessato ai compositori della sua terra, e ciò per un lettore italiano è forse ancor più prezioso che per uno d’oltreoceano, perché gran parte dei maestri statunitensi dalle nostre parti sono conosciuti più di nome che di fatto. Insomma, un saggio poderoso ma scorrevolissimo, pieno di dati senza esser opprimente, vivace senza scadere nell’approssimazione, e sorretto da un equilibrio esemplare nel metodo e nel giudizio storico. Credo che per una disamina panoramica, ma tutt’altro che cursoria e superficiale, della musica novecentesca, non si possa pretendere di meglio.
Profile Image for Caroline.
768 reviews220 followers
March 23, 2015
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 operative word is ‘read’. In fact I listened to an audiobook, but it wasn’t much different than reading the book. What a lost opportunity--there were no interspersed audio examples of what Ross was writing about. I have heard perhaps 5 percent of the music he describes. I am not a musician, so I was unable to ‘hear’ in my head most of the pieces he describes with substantial verbal ’notation��. I suppose the problem was one of getting rights to that many recordings, but even one example for the major composers would have helped, especially for the last half of the century.

You can go to Ross’s website to get audio samples, which is an essential service if you’re reading the book, but it does seem as if integrating them into the audiobook woudl have been a no-brainer.

Tony has also done a wonderful service in assembling some websites to compensate for this lack; see his review at

Part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much is that Ross’s own music preferences are on display, and they are very similar my own, excepting Britten. He is acidic on Pierre Boulez’s despotic rule in mid-Century, in particular on his devastating dismissal of earlier innovators like Sibelius. So one notes with a different attitude than before the tributes to Boulez in Sunday’s New York Times (and in fact, some of the ‘tributes’ are given with qualifications) and this years focus on Boulez in Berlin’s Festtage festival. He’s also a bit dismissive of Glass; I do like his Satyagraha nevertheless.

The book is written clearly, for readers of varying musical knowledge. I took two or three years of music lessons, and was able to follow a little of the discussion, but even a complete novice can follow much of the ‘plot’: the various developmental strands of composing schools as well as episodes featuring the full renegades like Henry Cowell. There are plenty of anecdotes to hold one’s interest. For someone with more musical knowledge there is plenty of information about the evolution of the Vienna School and the American avant garde as they invented more and more abstruse systems until the whole thing collapsed. Now we have Salonen and Ades and Adams and Saariiaho and Golijov (loved the Mass from the first moment I heard it years ago) and dozens more going off in all directions. What a cornucopia of ’noise'!
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
April 15, 2009
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 classical composers.

"The fabric of harmony was warping, as if under the influence of an unseen force." - about Liszt

"A fenced-off soul is opening itself to the chaos of the outer world." - Bartok

"I don't believe I will ever experience a more profound and stranger emotion than this sort of mute terror." - Ravel

"The birth of art will take place [when:] the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone forever." - Charles Ives

"I don't feel I've really scratched the surface of what I want to do." - Gershwin, spoken to his sister shortly before his sudden death in 1937

"You know you should go to the conservatory, but since you won't, I'll tell you. First you find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don't try to be anybody else but yourself." - Cook to Ellington, at the beginning of his career

"I can't listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell." - Lenin

"A score is a child of loneliness that feeds off crowds."

"I believe that music should be collective hysteria and spells, violently of the present time." - Pierre Boulez

"Composition only gains power from failing to decide the eternal dispute. In a decentered culture, it has a chance to play a kind of godfather role, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past."
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,715 reviews1,243 followers
June 30, 2012
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 and Shostakovich, Britten and Shostakovich, Messiaen and Boulez, Boulez and Cage, Stravinsky and Boulez. (Boulez comes across as the asshole of the book.) After Mahler's death, Strauss said that "Mahler had been his 'antipode,' his worthy adversary." A colleague once heard this exchange between Prokofiev and Shostakovich:

Prokofiev: You know, I'm really going to get down to work on my Sixth Symphony. I've written the first movement...and now I'm writing the second, with three themes: the third movement will probably be in sonata form. I feel the need to compensate for the absence of sonata form in the previous movements.

Shostakovich: So, is the weather here always like this?

Schoenberg and Stravinsky, "the twin giants of modernism" and exiles of Europe, lived eight miles apart in Los Angeles, yet apparently never met or spoke. (This fascinating expatriate L.A. community also included Rachmaninov, conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, and writers Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley.) It was only after Schoenberg's death that Stravinsky began to investigate twelve-tone composition for himself; he had been "deeply moved" after seeing Schoenberg's death mask at a dinner at Alma Werfel's house.

Messiaen was one of the few deeply religious modern composers. "Fellow composers would sometimes drop by Holy Trinity [in Paris] to find out what kind of music Messiaen played for the parishioners on an ordinary Sunday. Aaron Copland wrote in his 1949 diary: "Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at the Trinité. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the 'devil' in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery."
Profile Image for Alex.
Author 83 books14 followers
January 17, 2008
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—but a breathtaking synthesis of how the twentieth century world produced the music it did, and how the world was refracted and recasted through its lens.

One of the more amusing of his many distillations is his pitting of the twin modernist conceits against one another—on the one hand welcoming the "ragtag masses" with goofy fanfares, sentimental tunes and light operas, while on the other, consecrating an utterly abstruse aesthetic language accessible only to a select group of sophisticates.

Like a great satirist, Ross is especially keen at revealing the ironic similarities between otherwise opposing spheres. "The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be not unrelated to the politics of fascism," he writes: "both attempt to remake the world in utopian forms."

Indeed, The Rest is Noise evinces many of the attributes of a novel—lucid prose, richly drawn characters, illuminating convergences between internal worlds and external events—yet firmly tethered to historical truth. It's a rare thing to be so spellbound by a work of non-fiction.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
428 reviews220 followers
August 13, 2021
Well, that took a while. I spent 3 months and 2 days with this book and it was worth every minute.

I know very, very close to nothing about classical music, but I do know I like the modern variety (Gershwin, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glass) much better than the old masters. This detailed history of classical music from 1900 to the very early 2000s was a great introduction to bunches of composers of whom I’d barely or never heard (which was a number much larger than I like to admit). The historical context into which Ross put all the information, the descriptions of the composers’ lives and personalities, and rivalries among musical traditions were the aspects I enjoyed most. It did get somewhat technical in discussions of the music itself, how particular effects were achieved in certain pieces. This was completely lost on me, with my deep and total ignorance of music theory. These sections went right over my head, but made a lovely swooshing sound as they went by.

Ross’s prose style is wonderful and I read every word of the 543- page text, even the parts I where I understood nothing. Bonus: the last couple of chapters manage to make a few passing references to contemporary artists such as Bob Dylan, Bryan Eno, Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, and David Bowie and their influences. These guys I know!

I’ve been listening to various composers that are new to me throughout the reading of this book and will continue to do that, but so far I’ve just been diving in here and there. I’m trying to come up with a more systematic approach to broadening this part of my education. This book has led me to listening to the classical music station in Los Angeles, KUSC (91.5 FM), and so I’m learning even more about what I like, beyond what was mentioned in the book. Such as the contemporary Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi (a name I think I’d like saying, even if I didn’t like his music, which I do): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu96y...
Profile Image for Wiom biom.
60 reviews6 followers
April 11, 2021
I much preferred Wagnerism to this because this read more like a meandering survey of 20th-century music which, at times, lacked cohesion. Personally, I did not particularly enjoy reading about the postwar composers, such as Boulez, Ligeti, and all those American ones because 1) there are just so many unfamiliar names and 2) I'm just not interested in avant-garde music a la minimalism or all the other neologisms coined by those insular composers. But one key insight I distilled from this book is that while classical music seems to be on a decline, it is more useful to see it as a "godfather" of sorts in our "decentered culture" -- it is an art form that can "assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past". It is unhelpful to imagine classical music as an antithesis to pop music; music is not dialectical, it is a language that is constantly evolving, and that is simply used in different ways by different artists in different historical contexts. What classical music has offered, and continues to offer, is its unique ability to continue pushing the envelope and expand our conception of Music due to its rich tradition, relative insulation from commercial pressures, and ability to tackle/express complex themes through complex structures. Yet, both classical composers and pop artists alike stand to benefit by opening their ears to the music of the neighbouring block -- insular obscurantism and uninspired crowd-pleasers are extremes that ought to be avoided.
Profile Image for Eugenio Gomez-acebo.
338 reviews17 followers
September 5, 2020
Qué barbaridad de libro, un monumento grandioso e irresistible. Inteligente y de lectura amena y compulsiva. Una completa historia de la música del siglo XX a través de la historia, y cómo ésta se ve afectada y sacudida por un siglo convulso y violento. Un libro para leer despacio y escuchar; gracias a él y a Spotify he escuchado cientos de obras desconocidas durante meses que jamás hubiera oído... desde cosas de Schoenberg hasta piezas de Barber, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Milhaus, Stravinsky, Boulez, Stokhausen, Babbitt, Reich, Lutoslawski, Pärt, Adams... Antes de empezar el libro, el atonalismo me parecía la expedición musical más fracasada de la historia (así lo admite implícitamente Boulez cuando explica que no componen pensando el los oyentes). Pero ahora no estoy tan seguro de ello... Alex Ross tiene la habilidad de describir la música de forma formal y poética, dando sentido a la misma y a la luz de su época, a la explosión de creatividad de un siglo descomunal.

El libro empieza con la edad de oro, los últimos retazos del imperio, con Mahler y Strauss, con Salomé, los poemas sinfónicos, Puccini y las sinfonías de Mahler. El Doctor Fausto, Viena, Schoenberg y el escándalo en 1913, la atonalidad, sus discípulos y Wozeck, y algo de Debussy, preceden al París de los años 20 con los ballets de Diaghilev y el escándalo de la Consagración y sus ritmos enloquecidos; y el folk (Janacek, Bartolo, Ravel) y la aparición del Jazz, Satie y el grupo de los seis (Poulenc, Honegger, Milhaud, que luego tuvo gran influencia en Estados Unidos....) Ross nos describe los compositores americanos más importantes de la primera parte del siglo, desde Ives hasta Duke Ellington, pasando por supuesto por Gershwin. Un capítulo detallado nos habla de Sibelius, el genio finlandés, cuyos ”poemas sinfónicos dan forma a lo que uno siente mientras pasea solo”; se describen con minuciosidad sus sinfonías. La primera parte termina con la república de Weimar y Kurt Weill, y su música cabaretera.

La segunda parte (1933-1945) estremece con los terribles años de Stalin y Shostakovich, la politización del arte por medios totalitarios y un sinfín de compositores y artistas fusilados o enviados al gulag. (Más tarde China y Mao también siguen caminos similares): Prokofiev es el otro gran compositor explicado. Sigue con los Estados Unidos de Roosevelt y Copland. Y finaliza con la música en la Alemania de Hitler: Wagner y Parsifal como preludio antisemita (una obra adorada por el Furher, Strauss como la joya más preciada de la cultura nazi (siendo un compositor judeificado) y otros compositores como Lehar y Webern, que fue el más nazi.

El libro aborda después el ejército americano y la música alemana, con los conciertos de Munich de Bernstein, que conocía la música alemana mejor que los alemanes. La eliminación de la música nazi provocó sobre todo en Darmstadt un renacimiento de Schoenberg y el atonalismo (Boulez). La guerra fría, con su estética disonante, densa y difícil nos señala el no-fin de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Messiaen y el serialismo de Boulez, John Cage, el silencio y el azar, Stravinski y las corrientes avant-garde de los 50s, un estado de revolución permanente cuyo apóstol era Stockhausen. El capitulo finaliza con el insufrible Babbitt y con Bernstein, definido come talent desaprovechado en la dirección de orquesta.

El siguiente capítulo, la pasión de Benjamin Britten, centrado en este compositor solitario y atormentado que es un emblema patriótico inglés como Sibelius es de Finlandia, aunque su amigo fue Shostakovich. Su obra maestra, Peter Grimes, recibe una atención desproporcionada. También se habla de Messiaen, el renacimiento polaco (encabezado por Lutoslawski) y la música absurda y experimental que vació las salas de conciertos. La música sigue en su ratonera dodecafónica. "El dilema del compositor vanguardista parecía total. Proseguir la búsqueda de lo moderno suponía traspasar las fronteras del absurdo; retirarse al pasado era admitir la derrota." Luego llegan Ligeti y los 60s, el pop, el rock y lo minimalistas y sus repeticiones que todo lo invaden como salida a este sinsentido (Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, David Bowie, el hip hop, el techno, house y rave).

El último capítulo aborda la música de final de siglo. ¿Está muerta y oxidada la música clásica? ¿O por el contrario está cada vez más viva y más diversa? Ross recorre el mundo dando pinceladas de multitud de compositores, nuevos lenguajes y nuevas ideas, en un delta de música apabullante. John Adams y su Nixon en China ponen el broche final.

Y muchísimos más compositores, obras, piezas, historias que forman una cacofonía de músicas y estilos absolutamente magnífica.
Profile Image for Tom Choi.
64 reviews2 followers
January 29, 2008
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 demonstrates his great talent for storytelling: detailed, sympathetic and well-paced. These stories seem to mirror the great drama within music and in the world that surrounds it.

But after the great upheaval of the Second World War, the book unravels just as a linear history of the classical tradition unravels into new strands, clashing philosophies and influences. Thus, as we reach closer to our present, the book loses momentum and we are faced with a catalog of names, works and brief summaries. You can't fault the author for the ending (this is what happened to classical music) but the lack of focus and coherent narrative was a disappointment.

What's missing is a substantial discussion of "social music" and how it's transformation into "popular music" created new possibilities and conflicts, as well as a tense dialogue, with the "classical" tradition. Classical music loses shape and also its audience because the world changes.

I'm looking forward to Alex Ross' next work as well as his next piece for the New Yorker.
Profile Image for Sharon Barrow Wilfong.
1,117 reviews3,943 followers
September 20, 2016
Many things I liked about this book. Ross writes in a chummy, almost stream of conscious style. It gives a good overview of twentieth century music, which I love. However, I felt he spent too much time on certain composers or even some composer's works, devoting entire chapters to them while barely acknowledging others. All and all worth reading but certainly not the most scholarly source out there.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews222 followers
January 12, 2022
Reread, which I'd planned to do after reading Ross' more recent book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.

Ross writes a story about classical music in the 20th century, starting with the first performance of Richard Strauss' Salome in 1906 to the works of John Adams, who is thankfully still active. Ross' approach is not strictly from musicology - he describes musical compositions without jargon, and he encourages the reader to go out and listen for themselves.

The approach here is about the stories of the composers, the worlds they lived in, and any personal connections, influences, competitions, or disputes. On the one hand, there is the life of Oliver Messaien, who lived a life so modest and unassuming that the only off-color anecdote discovered about him that he once ate an entire peach tart in a single sitting. Compare that to the lives of composers who lived and died under overbearing governments - who had to adapt their art to the whims of dictators, or even worse, had to second guess their work.

The book is divided into three parts: The first is from 1908 to 1933, the second from 1933 to 1945, and the third from 1945 to 2000.

Starting the book off with Salome is an interesting flex point. It allows Ross to neatly bring in some of Strauss' immediate influences and predecessors, such as Richard Wagner, and then segue into future generations of composers - the Second Viennese School - Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, particularly Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Ross seems to emphasize here flourishing, showing off, and competition.

The second part takes place in a much less benign environment - where the audience, and success and failure themselves are a matter of life and death. I quote: "For anyone who cherishes the notion that there is some inherent spiritual goodness in artists of great talent, the era of Stalin and Hitler is disillusioning." The lives of composers in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are how Ross examines the role of composition and high art in relation to political systems. Additionally, chapters on the anti-Communist scares in the United States show that while the stakes were less deadly in the 1950s, lives were still overturned for no reason but paranoia.

The third part unwinds a little - there is a single chapter on one composer - Benjamin Britten, and then cramming so many others into shorter chapters - the 1950s avant-garde, serialists, minimalists.

But that criticism is minor. And to be honest, I don't know nearly enough about musicology to have any informed opinions about what is and is not missing. I deeply appreciate the book for what it is - an informed guide and elegant background for the many dozens of composers that Ross identifies.
Profile Image for David.
512 reviews37 followers
May 6, 2021
Fans of 20th century classical music need look nowhere else for some serious history about the composers, their masterworks and the political, social, ethnic, religious, philosophical, and economic influences (including the art world; I couldn't figure out how to fluidly include it in the earlier list) that combined to forge the music loved by many, and probably appreciated by many more who don't even realize it.

The book was a bit of a combination of two courses I took in college: Music Appreciation (3 credits, six album set) and Development of Western Civilization (4 semesters, 20 credits, history/art/philosophy/religion from early history to sometime after the Renaissance). When I took Music Appreciation I never realized how familiar I was with Classical music through the prodigious amount of time I spent watching cartoons, movies and general TV and from all of the commercials I heard on radio and TV. We all know the music, we just don't know the names or how it got here. Ross has made it his mission to fill in those enormous gaps, and he does a very commendable job. It's worth noting that Ross sidetracks from Classical music (American Jazz was my favorite diversion, and fans of Grantchester will certainly recognize the name Sidney Bechet when they read about him here) and I was struck by his ability to cover so much history without bogging down or overwhelming the book.

I deducted a star because the author got technical about music (scales, tones, other things I frankly couldn't comprehend) in spots and while I tried to take it in early on I began skimming when the technical aspects went over my head. Those technical aspects are probably a huge plus for someone with musical knowledge so that's strictly a personal complaint.

This is not a light read. I don't think you'll see people reading it on the beach. If the subject matter interests you and you want a substantial book on the subject I recommend it highly.

Final note: The author has a Web site/blog https://www.therestisnoise.com/noise/ which he updates regularly and which appears to be a good companion for the book.
Profile Image for Antonio Fanelli.
898 reviews126 followers
December 17, 2021
Amo la musica del novecento, quindi è il libro perfetto per me :)
Purtroppo di musica so che esistono sette note che si scrivono su un pentagramma, nulla più, di conseguenza metà del libro per me è arabo.
Le vite, le personalità e le rivoluzioni operate dai protagonisti sono molto ben tracciate ed appassionano il giusto senza scadere nel pettegolezzo.
Un po' mi ha seccato il pochissimo spazio dedicato a Nono e Berio, ma devo ammettere che, rispetto agli altri autodi di quel secolo, hanno avuto minore rilevanza ... però mi ha seccato.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
516 reviews234 followers
May 22, 2009
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: http://www.therestisniose.com.

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, the avant-garde, serialism, experimental music, and minimalism along the way. Special attention is payed to Sibelius, Schoenberg, Britten, Shostakovich, Cage, Reich, and Adams, but no relevant composer goes un-noted. Ross considers nearly every figure I could name, from the infamous (Stravinsky, Ellington) to the obscure (Kagel, Adès ... even Einstuerzende Neubauten gets a mention).

"The Rest is Noise" is a vivid and extraordinarily entertaining retrospective look at the century. Music becomes a template for considering the great social, historical, and psychological currents that defined the period. One of many examples: the fury and sorrow this reader felt learning of the debasement of Shostakovich by petty Soviet bureaucrats gives way to a deeply disquieting sense of unease when Aaron Copland received nearly identical at the hands of the McCarthy subcommittee.

I hoped this book would provide a context for understanding the more bewildering forms of music the last century produced, and it surpassed my high expectations. It does not require a degree in music theory to follow the evolution of chromaticism from Strauss to Stravinsky to Bartok to Schoenberg -- one needs only ears, a half-dozen CDs, and willingness to go on the journey. The rewards are many and profound.

This book is written for the layperson. It contains no musical notation at all, and very little close analysis. Ross's judicious and restrained use of technical terminology is carefully explained. A basic knowledge of the rudiments of theory and some of the broad threads of the history of notational music probably enhance reading this book. Other than that mild disclaimer, I heartily recommend it to anyone with interest in the subject matter.
14 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2008
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 from without making it seem like the composers were an inevitable result of the culture. I was inspired to check out a great many pieces by this book, and also given some context to keep in mind while listening. (Sometimes I can hear a piece without context and feel it immediately, but much more often it helps to have hints about where it comes from to direct my ear...)

My favorite thing about this book is that Ross comes off as a music lover with critical thinking abilities, not a critic. He's never cynical, he takes no joy in tearing others down, he has respect for the power and influence of music he personally doesn't like, and he can articulate his moments of transcendence in ways that make you want to experience them yourself.
Profile Image for GloriaGloom.
185 reviews1 follower
May 16, 2019
Ma che tomo bello e prezioso questa sorta di Guerra e Pace delle musiche del novecento. Il talentuoso critico musicale del New Yorker, lasciando da parte qualunque intento sistematico e avanzando piuttosto per vasi comunicanti, assonanze(dissonanze) tira su, con semplice e fluida lingua da romanziere di razza, un luminoso e illuminante albero delle musiche del novecento, affollatissimo di personaggi, paesaggi, storie, utopie, teorie, guerre, ideologie, miserie, chiacchiere, da Strauss ai Velvet Underground in un solo, lunghissimo, appetitoso boccone.
Qualche pecca, a volerla cercare col lumicino, è la traduzione italiana del titolo dove si perde la valenza doppia del "noise", e, questo sì affronto imperdonabile, la mancanza, almeno nell' edizione in mio possesso, di un indice analitico che in tomi labirintici di tale fatta è il minimo sindicale.
Profile Image for Bon Tom.
856 reviews55 followers
June 6, 2020
Incredible resource for music lovers. I only regret I didn't follow audio guide, because I didn't know it existed. So be mindful of that.

I believe some basic knowledge about music is necessary to follow and appreciate it, though, to full extent.

Interesting to learn was that even composers, who in my mind are wizards holding all secrets of music in their magic wand, are not immune to perfectly good questions that every layperson probably asks when starting to study any instrument: why is there 12 tones in an octave?

Turns out, you don't need to brake this perennial "secret" or even agree with it to create timeless compositions and mind-changing art.
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 1 book28 followers
September 20, 2019
Alright, three stars is actually a pretty good rating considering that, unlike many readers who reviewed this book, I’m neither a music student or a lifelong fan of classical music. I’m just one of those philistines whose knowledge of 20th-century music is basically about the popular variety. Still, I learned a lot and I absolutely don’t blame anyone for giving this five stars. It’s an amazing book and I’ll bet a truly knowledgeable reader would get a whole lot more out of it than I did.

When I first got this book I thought it was going to be a history of all music in the 20th-century and it turned out, instead, to be basically about classical music. When I think of classical music, I usually think of long-dead composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. When I heard names such as Strauss, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Prokofiev, it never occurred to me that any of them were still breathing in the twentieth century.

My chief problem, uneducated bore that I am, is the long descriptions of various musical pieces filled with all kinds of technical jargon that render them mostly unintelligible to me. I got through all of them out of a vague sense that it was all very meaningful. This is part of the history of the twentieth century, part of the world we inherited. It’s important, even if I don’t understand it all.

I enjoyed it when the lives of these composers intersect with the history of the modern world that I was already familiar with. I also enjoyed it when the influences on the popular music I grew up with were brought out.

It was a fun point when he describes classical music as the sort of thing that villains in movies are popularly seen as enjoying. The link between Hitler’s love of Wagner and that phenomenon had never occurred to me. I always assumed that the villains were showing off how cultured they were as a way of saying, “See? I’m not so bad. I may be planning on destroying the world, but at least beautiful music will survive.”

I won’t say I’m a total ignoramus, I have heard of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I probably heard a bit of modern classical music occasionally on CBC Radio being introduced by a host speaking in low tones as if he were afraid that he might accidentally sound like a commercial DJ.

Anyway, it was a bit of a slog for me at times, but I think it was worth it. These were indeed an important part of the sounds of the 20th-century.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book713 followers
June 16, 2008
Amazon 2008-05-21, recommendation from aldaily.com.

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 panache and fluidity one would expect from the New Yorker's primary music critic (a Harvard grad whose English thesis concerned James Joyce). Opening in Germany's classical heartland and following the action around Central and Northern Europe allegretto grazioso, Part I introduces the "Founding Fathers" of modernism (their ineluctable influence and enormous visages are backdrops for all of the 20th century) -- the conflicted Mahler, the melancholy Stravinsky, the bemitleidenswert Strauss. The Rite's syncopations and Serialism's atonalities have set the scene for World War II and Part II's broad coverage of that war's music, including the moving story of Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony (the 7th; Stalingrad is the 8th) and Operation Squall (as more completely related by Anthony Beevor). Part III is a rich cacophony of names, styles and new directions; dozens of modernists are detailed, of which I knew only Cage with any familiarity.

Any good book will unfold in a great fractal across one's life, a root node expanding with n-ary references and them their own n. Likewise with the music of The Rest is Noise, I must now go procure and hear numerous scores of this last century, and from them move on to other pieces yet unknown. Thanks for the music, Mr. Ross.
4 reviews2 followers
December 5, 2008
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 totally broke with the traditions of tonality in reaction to the decadent 19th century museum culture that romantic classical music had become. We learn about the influence of jazz on classical music (Stravinsky and Copland loved it, and you'll hear shades of jazz in a number of their works.), how Aaron Copland's leftist political stance helped lead him to develop his populist, American style of music, John Cage and his introduction of chance elements to music composition, electronic music and minimalism's return to tonality and "easy listening" after the thorny paths of 12-tone composition. The author's descriptions of various pieces of music are wonderful. My only criticism is how much time he spends explaining various parts of operas. Maybe that's because I don't care much for opera. As you read the book, you'll want to listen to many of the pieces, which are described so enticingly. I found my CD collection growing throughout. Some of the greatest discoveries for me were the music of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, pupils of Arnold Schoenberg, and Sibelius' 5th Symphony. Webern's "funeral march" in his Six Pieces for Large Orchestra is one of the most frightening five minutes of music I've ever heard. The other movements around it show off amazing and unusual orchestral color you've never dreamed of hearing. Then there's the joyful main theme of Sibelius' 5th symphony that just takes your heart away. If nothing else, Ross's book introduced me to some of the finest music I've ever heard.
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