MUSIC IN BOOKS: ALEX ROSS – The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

ISBN-13: 978-0374249397 (hardcover)
Review by Andreas Georgi

In the 8 years since I wrote this review on Amazon I’ve become a lot more familiar with modern composed (or “classical” or “concert”, or WTF) music, but I still concur with most of the content.  This book was very helpful in directing my attention to a wide range of music.

I really enjoyed it and found it a very educational resource for my musical exploration. I know the term “classical” is incorrect – call it concert music, music in the European tradition of composed music, art music, WHATEVER! For better or for worse using the term “classical” allows most people to know what you’re talking about. For that reason I will use that term in the rest of the review.

In a TV interview and in the preface to the book the author commented that he listened exclusively to classical music until college. In college he would play some things to his fellow students, who would comment that it sounded like Sonic Youth or Cecil Taylor, etc. Although I have been starting to immerse myself in the music for some time now, I am still very much a novice and this book’s release is perfectly timed for me. I am not totally ignorant of older forms of classical music, but I approached 20th Century art music not via Bach and Beethoven, but via Frank Zappa and Ornette Coleman. Frank Zappa, who became my musical idol in my teens (and remains so in my 40’s), was particularly influential in exposing me to a new world of possibilities. He made direct reference to Stravinsky, Varese and Holst, among others, in his music. Likewise in modern jazz there has been a lot of cross-pollination with this music. A jazz fan would find the harmonies in Erik Satie’s piano works not at all unfamiliar.

I suspect that many music fans are also approaching this music in a similar way, and this book will be very helpful. This is not an academic book and it is not aimed at an ivory tower readership. It does not assume an encyclopedic knowledge of all music that’s gone before, although it does use musical terminology, so if you’re not very familiar with such terms (like I am not, really), you’ll want to consult a dictionary or encyclopedia occasionally. A bit of a challenge is hardly a bad thing, I think.

Mr. Ross uses very evocative language to describe the key works of music in his book. This is never an easy task. Music hits you in places that words will never go! Still, he does a very good job. When I was reading this I had never heard most of the music being described, but reading about it I certainly wanted to!

Music does not exist in a vacuum, but is both a product of and an influence on its times. Mr. Ross writes a very compelling narrative which puts the music in the context of the places, times, politics, and the lives of the people involved. This is a fascinating history book as well as a book on music. It’s also full of colorful and entertaining character studies of these composers’ often “unusual” personalities. Their interactions with each other are not necessarily always all that high-minded!

This music has survived in relative obscurity since the early part of the 20 Century. Mr. Ross proposes a number of explanations for this, which the reader may or may not agree with, but one recurring theme is that the various movements in 20th Century music eventually seem to paint themselves in corners through an almost fanatical insistence on taking things to the most abstract and extreme (if the audience likes it, it’s a failure!). Not everyone comes out in favorable light. Pierre Boulez, in particular, comes across a bit absurd in his extreme positions. Whether this is an accurate portrayal I don’t know. Clearly the author’s personal tastes come through here, but he does a good job of describing their mindset.

The first section of the book deals with the events of the early 20th Century – the decline of the decadent old empires, the rapidly-growing role of industry and technology, and others, which led people to search for something new. One recurring theme is the struggle between the aspirations for “pure” art versus a desire to be relevant to society at large. The chapter dealing with Russian composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s struggles and compromises during the height of Stalin’s reign of terror is a highlight. It covers, from a different angle, the some of the subjects dealt in “the Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn.

Sandwiched between the chapters on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany is the chapter on music in the USA in that period. He does not insinuate that they are equivalent, by any means. He does detail how even in the US composers had to navigate through dealings with government bureaucracy and corporate sponsors, for both of whom artistry was perhaps not the top priority.

I could nitpick whether Sibelius and Britten deserve entire chapters while others get little more than name-dropping mention (The chapter on Sibelius is very good). Consequently his coverage of the second half of the century is more condensed. I wish that he might have spent more time on it.

At the end of the book is a recommended discography of 10 recordings, then another 20 more. I have ordered a number of these and look forward to going back and looking at Mr. Ross’s descriptions after actually listening to them. I will leave it to better-informed people to argue whether or not these really are the “best” versions of the pieces, but they seem as good a place as any to start. Certainly it would seem reasonable to me to start your collection of Stravinsky with a performance conducted by the man himself. Coming from a background in performer-oriented rock and jazz, it can be daunting to figure out which performance of a composer’s work is best, so this discography helps such readers get at least a start.
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Author: tomymostalas

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