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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

(The Rest Is Noise)

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  13,733 ratings  ·  781 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.

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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
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
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
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
Barry Pierce
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. ...more
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
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
lark benobi
Jun 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
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. ...more
Nov 18, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: the music adventurer and who credit at Amoeba Music
Shelves: books-bought
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
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Nov 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music, read09, 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
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
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
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
May 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 Apprecia
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,
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
Bon Tom
Jun 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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 1
Sharon Barrow Wilfong
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. ...more
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
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. ...more
In-ho Yi
Apr 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Finally finished reading this masterpiece. My idea of music has matured so much as a result.
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 f
Feb 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I am a huge music fan and have really been on a long kick of 20th Century classical and experimental music the past few months, so this book felt like a bit of a no-brainer to read. For the most part, I think it's a great book too, covering all of the various movements and important personages of classical music across the previous century.

If I could leverage any actual complaints at this one, I would maybe criticize it for spending too much time on certain composers that the author clearly favo
Jul 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Very complete examination of twentieth century classical music, including the effects from and on people, politics, and other forms of music - from jazz and musicals to punk and hip-hop. The effects of World War II (many composers were Jewish, gay, or both) is strongly felt, but the impact of other politics is also shown.

This is very much an examination of western music, and while influences from Africa color many earlier compositions, Asian countries don't come into play until the end. But this
Mar 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, music
It's a good book, don't get me wrong. But it does fall into a number of annoying tarpits along its journey through the 20th century. The amounts of text composers or movements get seems very volatile, the euro-centrism is strong, the political parts make me want to scream sometimes, composers become little animals in Ross' zoo and the last chapter, instead of explaining any movement coherently just glosses over them like a term paper handed in a day after the deadline.
But on the upside, you pro
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
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if I'm not really into classical music... 12 160 Apr 27, 2013 08:22AM  

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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

Other books in the series

The Rest Is Noise (1 - 10 of 16 books)
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  • 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
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  • The Rest Is Noise Series: Invisible Men: American Composers from Ives to Ellington

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