Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, knows how to write about music. When he came out with an entire book attempting to make sense of 20th-century classical music, it was highly acclaimed not only by other popular magazines, but also by music professors. On the recommendation of my 20th-century music prof, I picked up The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) on the day of my graduation, when I had a few extra dollars of credit at the school bookstore. The Rest is Noise is not a textbook, nor is it a series of disjointed musicology articles, nor is it a monograph examining a single musicological topic in depth – thus, it is different than most of the other music history books I’ve read. It is a survey of an entire century of music from a cultural and political perspective, arranged in a loosely chronological fashion and organized largely by country. Thus, there is a chapter on Strauss, Mahler, and other Germans at the start of the 20th century; there is a chapter on American music in the early 20th century, spanning Copland-esque populism to the Ives-ian avant-garde; there are chapters on Russian music before the Cold War and the Western experimentalist tradition during it; there are entire chapters on Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten. This book is a discussion of how musical trends and ideas reflected, reacted against, or participated in the public worlds of culture and politics. All of the major composers I studied in my two courses on 20th-century classical music appear, as do a few I haven’t heard of, and along with some very interesting composer biographies, I learned a tremendous amount of world history. Government, wars, rulers, and nationalism have all played crucial roles in the evolution of music in these busy hundred years. Over the course of the last century, with all its varied musical trends, music has been composed for political propaganda or to protest against totalitarianism, to engage with social conflicts, to communicate individual composers’ joys and hardships, to express spiritual beliefs, or even just to make a living. It is impossible to come away from The Rest is Noise without a deepened understanding of music’s role in culture, and culture’s role in music.
I applaud the book for its success at communicating a fascinating history in an engaging manner, but I did have a few minor criticisms. Most annoyingly, there were hundreds of unnecessary commas – a habit to which I myself am prone, and one I am trying to break. Perhaps because of Ross’s background as a journalist, The Rest is Noise had very poor transitions. Ross writes as if he is more accustomed to short-form articles, and thus, the book read like a series of short essays strung together haphazardly. Sometimes there were line breaks, and sometimes even subtitles introducing new sections, but usually, he jumped jarringly from one topic to another with only a paragraph break. Overall, the book was somewhat unfocused. Anecdotes and digressions abound. Ross embarks on various twisted, spidery paths in all directions to give what he admits is an uncomprehensive, general picture, in which much of the history of 20th-century classical music is left on the cutting room floor. I can’t fault him for this; the last century contained so much innovation and so many great composers that it would be impossible to cover them all in a book of manageable size. Thus, specific events and a few major composers stand in for larger musical and cultural trends.
If you can get past the plethora of commas and the lack of direction in terms of transitions and sectional divisions, The Rest is Noise is a fascinating survey of a period in music that is often regarded as inaccessible and difficult. The book itself is understandable to all readers, even if you lack pre-existing knowledge of music or world history. You might even try it as an airplane book – I did, and I not only looked smart in the airport, but quite enjoyed my reading time on the flight. I also now have several more pieces to add to my very long list of classical masterpieces to become familiar with. An American in Paris or Nixon in China, anyone?