Books on music are always a bit of a crapshoot. Even the best-intentioned authors can deliver works that sound flat and uninspired, struggling to bring to life on the page what would give you goosebumps if it came through a pair of halfway decent speakers. So it’s a pleasure reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
It would be enough to read the writer’s lively warts-and-all portrayals of some of the giants of twentieth century music. Happily, Ross doesn’t take the Alka-Seltzer approach (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”), preferring instead to have a smallish handful of composers–the likes of Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Cage, Glass, Reich, Britten, et al.–stand in for entire movements and scenes. It also helps that he doesn’t sketch the evolution of the century’s music as merely a sense of inevitabilities, where one thing follows from another as though it must. The parts are a mess, a set of accidents happy, unhappy, or contrived; the whole isn’t much tidier, and it’s to Ross’s credit that he doesn’t try to make it so.
It probably shouldn’t be remarkable that a book on music should be so richly evocative of the music it chronicles, but as I’ve noted above, that’s not something to take for granted. Reading the book, I wish I had a better knowledge of music theory, since the author sometimes seems to break music down to a nearly subatomic level. I’m exaggerating here, but not by that much; you realize, when you read an evocation of a piece you’ve heard, yeah, it sounds like that. It has the effect of making the familiar seem strange, or at least refreshed, while making the strange/unknown seem both familiar and alluring. You don’t need a degree in composition to grasp what Ross is getting at, but neither would a master musician be bored; he neither condescends to the former, nor panders to the latter.
Besides the outsized sounds and personalities, the other thing that hangs heavy over The Rest Is Noise is politics, from the petty internecine rivalries (Strauss versus Mahler, Weill versus Brecht, Boulez versus nearly everyone), Hitler and Stalin’s attempts, with varying (and disheartening) degrees of success to co-opt musicians in their schemes, to the stylistic vagaries of the Cold War. If the personal is political, Ross also shows how the musical also ends up highly politicized, whether attempting to reconcile the avant garde and folkish tendencies, or trying to move from fierce musical nationalism to outlooks and styles that would transcend borders.
In an age when the most music will generally provoke is a letter to the editor, a bit of handwringing, or a Congressional inquiry, it seems nearly puzzling that The Rite of Spring could cause a riot. By book’s end, as music has veered from tonality to atonality and back, as it’s gone through more refinements and processes than a Twinkie, you wonder what music, culture, and public life have lost as “serious music” has faded into the background. Alex Ross reminds us why it mattered once, as well as how and why it might still.
Postscript: Ross has a website/blog, also titled The Rest Is Noise, that’s well worth reading.