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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

(The Rest Is Noise Series:)

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  11,866 ratings  ·  668 reviews
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a voyage into the labyrinth of modern music, which remains an obscure world for most people. While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and lines from T. S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, twentieth-century classical music ...more
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published October 16th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2007)
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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.

Community Reviews

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4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  11,866 ratings  ·  668 reviews

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Mar 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Christensen
Aug 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: music
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
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
Jonathan Barry
Dec 06, 2013 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
Oct 13, 2014 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
Dec 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
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 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Nov 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read09, music, favorites
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
Michael Finocchiaro
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 ...more
Nov 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century. (2007). Alex Ross. *****.
This work is, undoubtedly, the best book I have read that has reviewed the music – primarily classical music – of the 20th Century. The author is – or was, at the time of publication – the music critic for The New Yorker, and was obviously steeped in his subject. Much of the music of the 20th Century originated in the latter part of the 19th Century, so we are supplied with the background we needed to understand wha
I could never make sense of 20th century classical music, especially the stuff from 50's and on. Whenever I picked a random piece, I felt it was hermetically closed in itself, as if created only for the composer's own pleasure, so I often felt I needed some kind of special initiation into this music that I could never obtain. But since there were a few exceptions (most notably Arvo Pärt), I didn't want to give up on it. Then I found out that this book existed.

It took a few weeks, a few breaks, a
Tom Choi
Jan 28, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jan 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Bob King
Dec 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
David M
Feb 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Sep 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
How do you even write about music? During most of my reading I turn all forms of melodious interferences off. For the most part, I did the same with this book. Sometimes if Ross discussed a piece at length, I'd look it up online and give it a listen on the side. But for the most part, Ross describes the music in such a succinct way. Talking vividly of the specific chords, melodies and instrumentation used and how even the tiniest changes in the pieces reflected the composer's world, personality ...more
Barnaby Thieme
Mar 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music
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,
Nick Black
May 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Nichelle Crocker
Apr 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I went nuts listening to music, and I’m just getting warmed up. That was my reason for reading The Rest Is Noise. I was already a big fan of 20th century classical music and I wanted a jumping-off place for more listening. I’ll lead off my review with the evidence of my mania, my listening list. It’s crazytown, but maybe other people will get some value out of it.

The book does supply a listening list designed for sane people, so if you’re not an insatiable
Brooke Shirts
Apr 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Vrixton Phillips
Jun 05, 2011 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
May 17, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Oct 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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!
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if I'm not really into classical music... 12 151 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.

Other books in the series

The Rest Is Noise Series: (1 - 10 of 13 books)
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Apparition from the Woods: The Loneliness of Jean Sibelius
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Doctor Faust: Schoenberg, Debussy, and Atonality
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Beethoven Was Wrong: Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: The Golden Age: Strauss, Mahler, and the Fin de Siecle
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Music for All: Music in FDR’s America
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Sunken Cathedrals: Music at Century's End
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Death Fugue: Music in Hitler’s Germany
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Zion Park: Messiaen, Ligeti, and the Avant-Garde of the Sixties
  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Invisible Men: American Composers from Ives to Ellington
“The august Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé defined poetry as a hermetic practice: “Everything that is sacred and that wishes to remain so must envelop itself in mystery.” 1 likes
“The philosopher and critic Georg Lukács put it this way: “The essence of art is form: it is to defeat oppositions, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force, from all things that have been deeply and eternally alien to one another before and outside this form. The creation of form is the last judgment over things, a last judgment that redeems all that could be redeemed, that enforces salvation on all things with divine force.” 0 likes
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