• The Rest Is Noise

  • Listening to the 20th Century
  • By: Alex Ross
  • Narrated by: Grover Gardner
  • Length: 23 hrs and 6 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Release date: 10-12-07
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • 4 out of 5 stars 4.1 (47 ratings)

Editor reviews

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
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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.
©2007 Alex Ross (P)2007 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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Critic reviews

National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism, 2007

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Regular price: £29.59

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Sara on 01-07-14

Adding colour and context to 20thC Compositions

What made the experience of listening to The Rest Is Noise the most enjoyable?

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.

What did you like best about this story?

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.

What about Grover Gardner’s performance did you like?

The narration was ok, not one I would have written home about. Engaging enough.

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

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.

Any additional comments?

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.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By See Me Hear Me Feel Me Ltd on 01-12-16

Excellent but classically focused book

This book is extremely well researched and delivered.

However, those looking for a broad study on 20th century music should note that this book focuses on classical music. Other forms are touched on (particularly jazz) but the vast majority is a study of classical music. I didn't get that from the reviews I read and was expecting more on blues, soul, reggae and hip-hop.

That's not to fault the book. It broadened by horizons and was a fascinating read but if you are looking for a wider study you may have to look elsewhere.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By Paula on 18-02-08

Learned so much!

I'm a professional musician and I spent an entire semester as an undergrad studying 20th century music, but there were many times during my listen to "The Rest..." when I went- hey, I didn't know that!
Ross starts us out at the turn of the 20th century in the hotbed that was German late-Romantic music (Strauss, Mahler), and we walk through the remainder of the 20th century, not necessarily in chronological order. Instead, Ross deals with places and chunks of time, putting composers and the way they wrote into the context of social and political history: Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, 20's Paris, New-deal USA, Soviet Russia, Post- WWII Europe, 60's NYC, and so on. The trick for the listener is to remember that this is world history seen through the lens of music history.
Yeah, you're gonna learn quite a bit about what went on musically. But even if you already knew a lot about that, you're gonna understand what it was like to be a musician, why composers wrote music the way they did at certain times and places, and how people reacted to that music.
I would caution the listener that it's a fairly musically sophisticated book. Ross hastens to assure us that he did not write it as a music history text, but as a guide for the educated concertgoer/ listener, and I think that's true. However, be prepared for some fairly advanced terminology. This is not for the newcomer to the world of "classical" music.
It's taken me almost 2 months to wade through this book. It's long and dense, and I went back over some sections again because I just really wanted to absorb all the information. It's totally worth the work though, for a fine understanding of musical history and just-well- history. Ross also has a website connected with the book which is chock full of exerpted recordings of the pieces he discusses.

Learn! Listen! Enjoy!

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49 of 49 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By R. Wagner on 16-01-09

Excellent for serious music enthusiasts

This book is an important contribution to writings and analyses of 20th century music. It deals largely with 'serious' musical art forms and does so, for the most part, in great depth. By providing the political and social backgrounds during the lives of some composer, Ross enriches the book with valuable contexts that help us to understand the music of each period. He continually makes interesting connections between each composer with both their peers and mentors, providing some astonishing insights that are not commonly known. Fascinating stuff! The period in Europe between 1900 and 1945 is most effectively delivered and illuminating, as is American art music in the 50's and 60's.

Ross is a wonderful writer who employs rich descriptive language and a nice balance between facts and occasional humorous antidotes. The narrator does a fine job of endeavoring to bring the text to life without letting too much unnecessary drama get in the way. It's a large book, and he moves it along at a good pace.

As already indicated by several other reviewers, this book is not for everyone. It would be particularly relevant to the serious music enthusiast, students and music educators, and arts historians. Recommended.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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