The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

I have been exploring quite a bit of “new music” recently, and in my various internet searches I came across this book.  Alex Ross is the music critic at the New Yorker, and he writes the musical history of the twentieth century very well.  This is the second non-fiction book I’ve read this year, and where I read The Machine in two nights, this book took two weeks of concentrated effort to finish.  That fact  is entirely due to the amount and depth of information imparted by Ross.  It’s not a slog through page after page of facts, but you will learn something in every section.

The Rest is Noise doesn’t approach musical history as a separate entity, instead the entire book is set in the historical events of the 20th century, and how wars, prosperity, and politics influenced the composers.  Nor does the book include each and every detail of each and every musical movement.  Chapters start broadly, then focus on one particular composer demonstrating one particular musical philosophy (often through description and analysis of one particular piece).  From there multiple offshoots present themselves, and Ross follows some, ignores others, and often returns to a point of divergence many pages later to explore the other path.

The best parts of this book are the descriptions of the specific pieces.  I’ve listened to some classical music in my time, but I would by no means consider myself an expert (I took one music theory class in high school, nothing in college), so it’s enlightening to hear what a studied, eloquent music critic hears in the pieces.  I was introduced to a lot of pieces, composers, and movements reading this, and I liked the “recommended listening” portion of the appendix, so I thought I would include a couple of pieces that I discovered and enjoyed because of this book.

Iannis Xenakis – Metastasis

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 4 – 1st movement

NOTE – Ross has a new book coming out in September – “Listen to This“.  I’ll probably check that one out as well, but for now I’ve got to find a little bit lighter read to counter this one.

3 thoughts on “The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

  1. I liked both of these. The first one had a weird sort of dissonance that reminded me a bit of John Zorn. (Was he mentioned in the book?) I also think the composer should be getting royalties from whoever does the soundtrack to Lost.

    The second one has a tragic sort of melancholy hanging over it. I’m a sucker for those sad strings, just as long as they aren’t sappy. Those definitely weren’t.

    • John Zorn was mentioned, although not thoroughly discussed. I’ve liked some of his stuff – but it gets a little ‘out there’ for me at times. Agreed on the Lost connection.

      I just like the gloomy cello to start off the Sibelius.

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