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January 24, 2008

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise

Normally in this blog I write about American orchestras, often reporting on experiences I have while visiting them. I do not use this space to review recordings or books. But I must make an exception for Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). If you read only one book about music this year, make it this one...

It is difficult, in a concise space, to explain what is so special about Ross's book, but I'll give it a shot. First is the sheer quality of the writing. This is picturesque, evocative, poetic writing that brings the music of the twentieth century vividly to life. Since one of the highlights of the book is Ross's discussion of Benjamin Britten, let me use a bit from that to illustrate the quality of the writing:

Young Britten assembled a personal language out of whatever pleased his uncommonly sharp ear. His harmonic vocabulary stemmed both from continental models such as Berg and Stravinsky and from the more adventurous British composers of the time, particularly Holst, composer of The Planets. From Holst, Britten seems to have picked up the device of the enharmonic change, in which one note holds steady while the harmony pivots to a distant chord - a trick much used by twentieth-century tonal composers, notably Shostakovich. Britten also developed the habit of wavering bluesily between major and minor modes by modifying the third degree of the scale. Greatly impressed by a 1936 London production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, he mastered the Shostakovichian art of parody and grotesquerie, and also took inspiration from operetta, vaudeville, and popular song.

It is remarkable, actually, to convey so much of the essence of Britten in a handful of sentences. Delving further into Britten, Ross examines the relationship between his music and the society in which he operated, including his homosexuality and his struggles to control at least some aspects of it.

Anyone in the music world can find omissions that will trouble them. The composers Ross describes as "still working in traditional orchestral, operatic, and chamber-music genres" are given fairly short shrift (Corigliano, Rouse, Harbison, for example) or ignored completely (Daugherty, Higdon, Puts). Even some important composers of earlier generations, such as Barber and Piston, are treated cursorily. But this never pretended to be a comprehensive encyclopedia. Rather it is an overview of a whole century of music from throughout the world, and how it related to the societies in which it functioned.

The greatness of the book, in fact, is its integration of the art of music into society - culturally, politically, humanly. Ross takes nothing for granted, and accepts no received wisdom. Was Stalin's pressure on Shostakovich good or bad for Shostakovich and for music? Well...that isn't so easy to answer, and Ross avoids clear and politically correct answers. He loves living in, and describing, a world that lacks blacks and whites but involves shades of gray. Contrasts, contradictions, interactions and reactions - all of this engages his intellect and stimulates his imagination. And he, in turn, stimulates ours. This is, in the end, an optimistic book about the greatness of an art form, although it certainly doesn't shy away from doubts and troubles. I cannot remember ever having enjoyed a book about music as much, nor having my mind as stimulated and provoked.

Posted by hfogel at January 24, 2008 3:01 PM

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I particularly liked the part where Ross described the work of avant-avant garde composer Alvin "the deep end" Lucier. Lucier was a distinctive figure at Wesleyan when I went there, and his installations and projects were the talk of the campus.

Posted by: Richard LeComte at January 24, 2008 4:26 PM

Mr. Fogel:

Posted by: Syd Hodkinson at January 26, 2008 11:08 AM

"The greatness of the book, in fact, is its integration of the art of music into society - culturally, politically, humanly."

I completely agree!

I haven't read your blog in a while, but I was happy to see this post today. I started reading this book a couple months ago (though I haven't finished it yet...). It is excellent!

Posted by: Gabe at February 15, 2008 12:54 AM