Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise seemed to be a good choice to fill in the gaps from the Aaron Copland and Julius Jacobson books I've read recently; Ross delivered a stellar book that exceeds the praise it has received so far. Geoff Dyer's NYT review called The Rest Is Noise "a work of immense scope and ambition" and "a great achievement." David Schiff's Nation review called the book "engaging" and asked "Who would have thought that a 600-page history of music that few people love could be such a page turner?" Joseph Kerman's TNR review praises Ross' New Yorker pieces, says that he "writes very well about classical music," and notes:

That he never shies away from technical language gives him cred (as he might say) with his musician readers and bothers not at all the non-musicians, who seem happy to skim over the C-sharps and the minor triads rooted a tritone apart, knowing these will always lead to something interesting and even breathtaking.

For Ross is one of very few music critics who somehow create the illusion that you grasp the music they write about even if you have not heard it. This a rare gift.

Ross' narrative effortlessly places composers, works, and performances placed into their historical and cultural settings to aid the reader's understanding, and never fails to maintain interest. He explains the tonality-to-atonality transition, twelve-tone serialism, the avant-garde movement, experiments with chance and collage, minimalism, and then sketches the way forward:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the impulse to put classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands. They are seeking the middle ground between the life of the mind and the noise of the street. (p. 541)

Part I kicks off with the 1906 premiere of Richard Strauss' Salome; and Part II with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth in 1936, which leads into the well-known story of his immortal Fifth Symphony; Part III continues the tale from the end of World War II to the present. The middle section is the book's highlight, and Ross does a spectacular job of explaining and dramatizing Shostakovich's relationship with Stalin's totalitarian terror. I was unaware of the harrowing story of his Seventh Symphony, titled "Leningrad," which Ross brings to life here:

Against his own wishes, he [Shostakovich] was evacuated from the city on October 1 [1941], and spent the winter in Kuybyshev, formerly Samara, in the Volga region. [...] Besieged Leningrad heard the [Seventh] symphony on August 9, 1942, under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. The score was flown in by military aircraft in June, and a severely depleted Leningrad Radio Orchestra began learning it. After a mere fifteen musicians showed up for the initial rehearsal, the commanding general ordered all competent musicians to report from the front lines. The players would break from the rehearsals to return to their duties, which sometimes included the digging of mass graves for victims of the siege. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere took place. [...] An array of loudspeakers then broadcast the Leningrad into the silence of no-man's-land. Never in history had a musical composition entered the thick of battle in quite this way: the symphony become a tactical strike against German morale. (p. 246)

That is the sort of dramatic story that would be nearly unbelievable if it came from the pen of a Hollywood scriptwriter; the fact that it actually happened gives me shivers, and showcases Ross' ability to tell his story exceedingly well.

When Ross notes that Lenin "regarded [music] as a bourgeois placebo that covered up the sufferings of mankind" (p. 218), this struck me as a deliberate echo of Marx's "opiate of the masses" remark regarding religion; it is to Ross' credit that he assumes such historical familiarity on the part of his audience. His assumptions about musical knowledge may be less warranted, however. Readers who have never studied music theory may want to do some reading on intervals and modes to help understand Ross' detailed musical descriptions.

Don't be put off by the musical minutiae, because Ross has penned the best book I've yet read on music. His enticing explanations of the music have inspired me to take note of pieces I've not yet heard, in order to broaden my listening habits. (As encyclopedic as Ross was in The Rest Is Noise, his mentions of microtonality didn't include jazz trumpeter Don Ellis, who performed on a quarter-tone trumpet. A reference to the Modern Jazz Quartet in Ross' discussion of Gunther Schuller and Third Stream music wouldn't have been out of place, either.) Those minor details aren't much of a fault, as including every minor tidbit of information would surely have ballooned the book to over a thousand pages.

Ross constructs his narrative wisely, and has written the sort of book that I can't recommend highly enough. Avid music listeners should put The Rest Is Noise at the top of their reading lists.

Alex Ross' New Yorker columns
his book's website and bibliography
Wikipedia's article on "20th-Century Classical Music"

[typo fixed]

update (10/14 @ 2:10pm):
In conjunction with the release of The Rest Is Noise in paperback, author Alex Ross has posted a glossary with plenty of audio examples. It's a great supplement to the newly enlarged audio guide, particularly for non-musicians.


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Thanks for catching that typo; it has now been fixed.

You write: "Against his own wishes, he [Shostakovich] was evacuated from the city on October 1 [1941], and spent the winter in Kuybyshev, formerly Samata, in the Volga region."

Actually the former (and again now present) name of Kuybyshev is Samara, not Samata.

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