The Rest Is Noise takes the listener inside the labyrinth of modern music, from turn-of-the-century Vienna to downtown New York in the '60s and '70s. We meet the maverick personalities and follow the rise of mass culture on this sweeping tour of 20th-century history through its music.More
Like the origins of a musical idea waiting to be developed through the course of symphony, Adrian Leverkühn, the titular musical genius of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, foreshadows The Rest Is Noise. Mann has Leverkühn attend a performance of Richard Strauss' Salome in 1906, the same event that opens The Rest Is Noise. Alex Ross lists Leverkühn's fictional attendance along with that of the historically correct presence of Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, the cream of doomed European society - and the 17-year-old Adolf Hitler. In Mann's book, Leverkühn contracts syphilis around the same time from a prostitute who goes on to haunt his work; the implied germination of something dark and destructive - musically and historically - sets the tone for Ross' hugely ambitious book.
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker, is Nureyev with a notebook. Critics may quibble with the lack of academic theory in his descriptions of music (in this regard, it's constructive to compare his book with Charles Rosen's The Classical Style), but he has an undeniable gift for enabling the reader to 'hear' the outline of the music he describes (or at least make them believe that is what they're hearing): "Strings whip up dust clouds around manic dancing feet. Brass play secular chorales, as if seated on the dented steps of a tilting little church...Drums bang the drunken lust of young men at the center of the crowd." Consequently, there are countless moments in this book where the temptation to download the music is overwhelming - clearly, copyright issues and running time barred inclusion of musical segments in this recording, and it's a tribute to Ross' style that this omission isn't a critical blow.
The author's forte - obsession, even - is to conjure up sweeping historical vistas and then focus in on the tiny details that bring biographies to life: Charles Ives' stint as an insurance salesman, the discovery by Alban Berg's brother of the teddy bear as a marketable toy. Ross also likes to draw historical parallels between the careers of very different composers. However, comparisons with works outside the genre don't always convince of their relevance, for example Sibelius' 5th with John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Everyone from Britten to Björk, Ellington to Einsturzende Neubauten is invoked, which is fun but can feel arbitrary. At these points, the listener is reminded of the author's other career as a prolific blogger - blog writing seems to invite a certain loftiness of authorial position from which vantage point sweeping generalisations are made; The Rest Is Noise can occasionally fall into this trap. But with such a huge amount to cram in, this is easily forgiven.
Grover Gardner narrates this sprawling epic, leading the listener through the maze of allusions, dates, and the constant switching from the macro to the micro. He also deserves a medal for his navigation of the minutiae of musical theory, not to mention an international cast of unpronounceable names. -Dafydd Phillips
National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism, 2007
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Adding colour and context to 20thC Compositions
As a musician who has mostly performed 20th Century music - Contemporary Classical, for my career, this book gave some interesting insight, really rounding out the history that I had learned while studying back at school/uni, and while performing.
I really loved hearing the context of where composers were in their life, geographically, politically, philosophically, psychologically, when they wrote particular pieces. Especially the effect that Hitler and other Political leaders had on these artists trying to live their lives.
The narration was ok, not one I would have written home about. Engaging enough.
Not really an emotional story! Though actually, knowing the context of Benjamin Britten's writing, and the challenges composers faced in trying to balance authorities opinions with their own artistic integrity, was really interesting. Also amusing to hear composers funny little opinions of each other.
Such a pity that they couldn't have spent some time/money getting the rights to some musical excerpts. I knew what the author was talking about a lot of the time, but only because I've performed and listened to a lot of classical music. Excerpts giving examples of what he was talking about would make this book much more accessible to music lovers who don't necessarily study or perform. And would have refreshed my memory a little. In this format, it seems crazy that they didn't consider these audio illustrations.
Excellent but classically focused book
- See Me Hear Me Feel Me Ltd