The Rest is Noise:
Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
If you were told that two composers had chapters to themselves in a fifteen chapter history of 20th Century classical music, you probably wouldn't pick Sibelius and Britten. Nor would you expect a whole chapter, albeit the shortest, devoted to music in Germany between 1945 and 1950.

So Ross' treatment in The Rest is Noise is idiosyncratic. He offers the excuse that Sibelius represents all "small countries" and the chapter on Britten, along with a detailed study of Peter Grimes, does also cover homosexuality and the final years of Shostakovich, a friend of Britten's. But these justifications are unnecessary. The best parts of The Rest is Noise are where Ross is writing about the subjects he is most excited by. And the expected figures are treated at length: the material on Stravinsky and Schoenberg, for example, simply spans multiple chapters.

Most of the chapters are organised around periods and countries; here Germany and the United States dominate and peripheral countries like Japan and Australia don't feature at all. The focus remains on high profile composers, but the biographical material is supplemented by discussion of trends and movements. The influence of jazz. The interlocking of politics and music in Weimar Germany. The cold war funding of avant-garde music by the CIA, in a strange but almost logical response to socialist realism and Soviet attacks on formalism. And many other fascinating and sometimes unfamiliar aspects of music.

A limitation is that Ross's approach in The Rest is Noise only really covers composition and composers. (The eight pages of black and white photographs are all portraits.) There is almost nothing on conductors or, despite the "listening" of the title, audiences and performance contexts, music education, or the effects of new technology.

Ross only goes into musical detail in a few places, with the occasional paragraph of musical analysis that assumes a general knowledge of forms, harmony, and so forth. These can be skipped by those unfamiliar with the pieces or the theory, however, and The Rest is Noise is aimed at a broad audience. For those who want to explore further, there are fifty pages of detailed references, an index, and one page of "suggested listening", with a primary list of ten cds and a supplementary list with twenty more.

The Rest is Noise is a lot of fun: it's a solid tome of some length, but one that can be read through quite easily.

February 2010

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%T The Rest is Noise
%S Listening to the Twentieth Century
%A Ross, Alex
%I Farrar, Straus & Giroux
%D 2007
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN 0374249393
%P 624pp