The Rest is Noise--Alex Ross

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Serialism, atonalism, 12-tonalism, spectralism, minimalism, polytonalism, microtonalism, whole tonalism, tritones, open fifths, symphonies, sonatas, and music concrete. If you've ever wanted to understand classical music in the twentieth century, this book may be for you. Alex Ross introduces us to the wild world of twentieth and twenty-first century music--from Schoenberg's Harmoniolehre to John Adams's Harmoniolehre and Nixon in China. Along the way we have whole chapter divergences into the work of Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten.

I have to admit to not fully comprehending all that the book had to offer by way of commentary. Nevertheless, Ross opened my eyes to some of the developments within music and made me more inclined to try to understand and appreciate what had happened in this century. The book starts with Debussy, Ravel, Les Six, and Stravinsky and move chronologically through the century. Chapters cover "totalitarian music" including the music of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and let's face it, Roosevelt's America (a more gentle kind of totalitarianism thanks to the system of checks and balances.)

There are a few seeming problems with the book. Particularly in the latter half, Mr. Ross tends to be a little gossipy, telling me far more than I need to know about the sex-and-drug lives of composers. I don't really need that much detail to understand the development in the music. However, to his credit, I may need to know that much to understand the "meaning" of music. Additionally Mr. Ross leaves out some major composers entirely--there is hardly a mention of Holst, Elgar, and Vaughn Williams, and not mention at all of Rachmaninov, Bax, Arnold, Scriabin, and other such. However, that too is less a fault than a matter of focus. The undertaking represented by this work was difficult enough--if Mr. Ross had tried to take in more and explain where Elgar and Holst fit into the whole, the book may have fallen into an incoherent set of vignettes. As it is, the book trembles on the threshold, but always manages to retain integrity as a history of the development of musical theory during the twentieth century.

As a result of this, I came to understand why Ligeti, Pärt, Gorecki, Reich, Glass, Riley, and Adams are all so immediately appealing to me and why Stockhausen, Boulez, and Schoenberg are not. I came to have small arguments with the sometimes nonsensical aesthetic positions of the composers (most particularly Schoenberg and Boulez--"We've come to set music free from the tyranny of tonalism; however, we'll impose a new tyranny, so it isn't really free after all, but we'll say it is.")

It's a long work and an involved one, but anyone interested in music with a little understanding of theory has much to gain from making the attempt to understand it. It was fascinating to see Duke Ellington, Brian Eno, and the Velvet Underground (as well as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the whole be-bop ensemble) in conjunction with Schoenberg and the atonalists. Understanding the drone behind "All Tomorrow's Parties" can only help increase ones appreciate for the complexity of some music that appears to have none at all.

For those interested in music and its development, this is simply a must-read. Highly recommended.

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I am, thanks to your recommendation, reading this book now. He uses Sibelius to stand in for Holst and the other English, which is fine by me. He is about as boring as Elgar, although not quite as good as Vaughan Williams. A chapter on Sibelius? Indeed! I am currently in the middle of that chapter, by the way. It does not make me like him one iota more.

He mentions Scriabin early on, though. He does not delve into the theory, probably because Scriabin's theory is about as readable as Ornette Coleman's. Both brilliant musicians were inclined to the opaque when speaking. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, "shut up and play yer guitar!" Saxaphone, piano, etc.

I like Ross's writing so far. He certainly knows music.

Dear Erik,

While we disagree on Sibelius (I find parts of Kullervo, all of the two Tempest Suites, and parts of Finlandia ravishing), but not on Elgar, I'm glad you found the book likeable. I found it so much so that after reading the library copy I made it one of my very few Amazon Kindle purchases. It is worth it to be able to carry around much of the thought in the book. He has provoked me to listen again to many composers who I did not like or embrace at first. It will come as no surprise to you that I have gained in appreciation for many of them--and it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn who they are--Messiaen, Ligeti (who I always really, really liked, but like even more now), Part and partisans, Reich, Glass, and I'm even trying to figure out Terry Riley--who confuses more than amuses.

I have to say that I still haven't heard anything by Boulez that I find remotely approachable--although you'll be pleased to hear that Stockhausen (in part) has become more appealing over time as has Penderecki. Xennakis, Varese, et al, once again I always liked.

I don't quite get his obsession with Benjamin Britten who I find only slightly more palatable than Elgar. (I do need to note that there are several Elgar pieces I do like--among them the Enigma Variations).

But I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of discussion of a vast world of tonal classical music in the twentieth century. However, given the title, that hardly seems the purpose, and perhaps one can expect future additions that might round out the composer covered in this massive volume.

Thank you for writing and sharing.



I just finished the book last night. I really like it for a number of reasons. I, too, borrowed it from the library and am probably going to buy it. I would like to have seen him go into a little more depth on "art-pop", for instance: Tuxedomoon, The Residents, Talking Heads, etc., but one must set limits, I suppose. Also, he completely ignores Jamaican music, which is so fundamental to understanding hip hop, which he does discuss, that its omission is regrettable. Dick Hebdige's Cut N Mix is a good supplement there. I also think that he could have discussed Zappa's influence on art music composers, and probably should have mentioned Christian Marclay...but I could go on, and, as I said earlier, there are obviously limits as to what can go into a book. Anyway, thanks again for the recommendation. I am very glad I read it.


PS. I was delighted to find two of my former teachers (one of whom, Gordon Mumma, was my faculty advisor) mentioned in the book!



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 8, 2009 7:42 AM.

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