Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Alex Ross, _The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century_

I READ THE first part of this--200 pages, roughly--back in 2008. I put the book aside, meaning to get back to it as soon as possible since I was getting a lot out of it, and then, somehow, four years went by. The daughter who graduated from high school about the time I interrupted my reading of The Rest Is Noise has just graduated from college. Who knows where the time goes, as Sandy Denny memorably put it. But I picked Ross's book up again a week ago and have just finished.

Ross is music critic for the New Yorker, and the book is a history of (what I guess we will have to call) classical music composition in the 20th century, starting with Mahler, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, and proceeding through Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and others to Steve Reich and John Adams.

The Rest Is Noise is written for a non-specialist audience--Ross uses no musical notation anywhere in the book, and when he throws out a term like "tritone" or "passacaglia" he always defines it.  The book is light on (though not devoid of) original research, but skillfully synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. I am guessing that musicologists would have the same kind of (perhaps not envy-free) misgivings and flare-ups  about Ross that psychologists have about Malcolm Gladwell, at the rate of perhaps 1.7 carps per page.

As for me, though--I thought it was an excellent book, and I learned a lot.  I was broadly familiar with these composers before reading it (I was pleased to see that of the thirty CDs Ross recommends in a list at the end of the book, I already had fourteen), but Ross's history has a narrative arc with enough conflict and characters for several novels, not to mention a few tablespoons of gossip to keep things lively. He brings old controversies to life, and shows you what was at stake in, for instance, how one felt about serialism. He is illuminating on the intersection of music and global politics in the 1930s (the Nazis and Wagner, Copland and the Popular Front, Shostakovich and Stalin) and during the Cold War (the USA and the USSR were competing not only in aerospace and in armaments, but over who had the most vibrant culture).

Musicologist or no, Ross always made me want to listen to familiar pieces again and to seek out the ones he wrote about that I had not yet heard.

Contemporary musical composition, like contemporary poetry, is always in danger of seeming as though its practitioners are its only audience, always liable to the charge of being elitist, closed-off, irrelevant.  I never thought that about contemporary poetry, and thanks to Ross, I will never think it again about contemporary classical music. It's here, it's alive, it's making a difference, it counts.

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