The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

Consider this question: do you like classical music, or popular?

Now, think: what is wrong with this question?

For a start, it makes an assumption that ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ (or ‘pop’) are two separate musical genres, as if popularity in itself were a defining characteristic and that ‘classical’ music is by definition not popular. In addition, what is meant by the term ‘classical?’ According to Grove Music Online1, ‘classical’ music without further qualification most commonly refers to the Viennese idiom identified with the work of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, the popular classical music radio station Classic FM (are you following this?) doesn’t restrict itself to just those three composers. In fact, judging by it’s playlist, Classic FM defines ‘classical’ music as anything from plainchant to the latest movie soundtracks.

The definition of ‘classical’ music has been fluid for a long time, and is still a subject of debate. In his book ‘The Rest Is Noise,’ New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross spends even less time than I have done above attempting to define the term. Instead, he launches into an exhilarating review of major trends and developments in music from the start of the twentieth century. It quickly becomes evident that Ross is talking about music as art rather than music as entertainment. To a certain extent, his book is about unpopular, non-classical music – the revolutionary sounds of Schoenberg and Boulez and Harrison Birtwhistle. However, by placing this music in its socio-political context, the author endeavours to re-connect it to the people. Starting with Richard Strauss’ opera ‘Salome’, and ending with John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’, Ross unashamedly cherry-picks his personal selection of key musical moments and uses them to define trends in twentieth-century music for the informed but non-expert reader.

Arnold Schoenberg turning his back on music audiences

The result is an engagingly coherent narrative. In particular, Ross explores the origins of a disconnect between audience and composer in the early twentieth-century, and identifies causes and motivations. The chapters in which he deals with the Darmstadt set and total serialism are cleverly linked with a discussion of the role of Messaien in America and the rise of minimalism. Again, by connecting developments in music in Europe and America with the cultural and social events of the time, he advances the thesis that even the extremes of Boulez and Reich can be seen as products of their environment. I particularly like his suggestion that the reaction against tonality in Europe in the 1950’s reflected revulsion and rejection of the horrors experienced during the second world war, and that America having suffered less immediately , the reaction there was less extreme and tonality could return without the same historical and political baggage.

At the core of his work are three chapters which focus on music between 1933 and 1945 under extreme political conditions: the Russia of Stalin, the United States of Roosevelt, and the Germany of Hitler. Utterly fascinating. In addition, Ross includes chapters on Benjamin Britten and Sibelius, along with material on numerous other composers of significance as they pass through the narrative. Stravinsky is discussed at some length, of course, although some may be surprised at the episodic nature of the discussion. However, in the context of developments in twentieth-century music, this treatment of Stravinsky seems appropriate, given his long composing lifespan and the chameleon character of his oeuvre.

In addition to the book, there is an excellent accompanying website  (available without purchasing the book), which includes relevant excerpts of most of the works referred to, along with links and references to further information. This is an outstanding resource, and one of the best examples of it’s type.

‘The Rest Is Noise’ provides a way in to the seemingly impenetrable complexities of Western art music in the twentieth-century with style and enthusiasm. I like this book. Buy it, read it and listen.

1. Heartz, Daniel and Brown, Bruce Alan. “Classical.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 Mar. 2013..

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