Dancing about architecture

Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise
December 19, 2007 1:00:22 PM

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as the famous saying suggests, then Alex Ross is the Lord of the Dance. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an astoundingly comprehensive history of modern classical music. Combine this with Ross’s blog,, with audio samples of many of the pieces he expounds upon in the book, and a person even the least bit curious about 20th-century classical music will find herself utterly engrossed.

Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, begins in the Austrian city of Graz with German composer Richard Strauss conducting his opera Salome. Giving this event the musical weight often attributed to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (which contains the famed “Tristan chord” — an unresolved dominant seventh chord that supposedly paved the way for atonality), Ross proceeds to list the attendees of the opera that evening, including famous composers Giacomo Puccini (composer of La Boheme and Tosca), Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg (the inventor of 12-tone atonal composition), Alban Berg, and possibly even a very youthful Adolf Hitler.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century | by Alex Ross | 640 pages | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $30
But the attendees are only the beginning. Ross quickly transitions to a vivid description of the opera: “A toneless bass-drum rumble and strangulated cries in the double basses give way to a huge smear of tone in the full orchestra.” Describing the music with vibrant language, Ross takes his reader through the story behind Salome, the music that so well informs the sordid tale, and the opera’s triumphant reception.

It would be impossible to read this without going out in search of a recording of Salome. Ross has published a playlist on his blog so a reader so inspired could visit to find a recommended recording.

Thankfully for us, Ross does not end with Strauss. The Rest is Noise is as much a history of classical music as it is a history of the 20th century through classical music. From New Deal politics, to Stalinist Russian, to Nixon’s visit to China, the book delves into the creation of musical art in this turbulent century.

Did Shostakovich compose for the communist state, turning a blind eye to that state’s violent actions against his fellow artists, or did he protest in the only way he could: by secretly injecting his symphonies with messages in so much disappearing ink?

Was the aftermath of Hitler’s Germany to blame for the current division between the popular and classical genres or was it Schoenberg with his vow to perfect music, as is so often suggested?

Is it possible to separate Benjamin Britten’s music from his obsession with young boys without completely uprooting the power of conflict ever-present in his violent opera Peter Grimes?

These are some of the weighty questions Ross attempts to answer, or at least explore, as he winds his reader through the music, the culture, the friendships and enemies formed, the critics who were wrong, the critics who were right, and the undeniable influence of the environment within which an artist creates. Summarizing Aaron Copland, Ross writes: “an artist who is forced to live in an atmosphere of ‘suspicion, ill-will and dread’ will end up creating nothing.”

From Stravinsky’s riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring to his self-conscious forays into serialism; from Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality to his inevitable return; from black composer William Grant Still’s contributions to the canon to Pierre Boulez’s snubbing of any music not his own, the book explores, explains, and, ultimately, celebrates the characters that have irreparably or positively (depending on your taste) changed classical music forever. Somewhere in your response will be at least a bit of awe for ever having considered the notion that this incredible genre of music could be dead. Rather, with Alex Ross as our guide, classical music has never felt more alive.

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Emily Parkhurst:


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