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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the…

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

by Alex Ross

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
I stumbled across this amazing 2008 book in my search for understanding the relationship between a contemporary culture and its corresponding art, never suspecting the role government and politics have played in directing the course of change. How innocent could I be? I know “he who pays the piper calls the tune” – but who would have suspected the piper was the government and politics hiding behind benevolent foundations?

Quoting: “The period from the mid-thirties onward marked the onset of the most warped and tragic phase in twentieth-century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means. On the eve of the Second World War, dictators had manipulated popular resentment and media spectacle to take control of half of Europe. Hitler in Germany and Austria, Mussolini in Italy, Horthy in Hungary, and Franco in Spain. In American, FDR was granted extraordinary executive powers to counter the ravages of the depression....particularly when federal arts programs were harnessed to political purposes. In Germany, Hitler forged the most unholy alliance of art and politics that the world had ever seen.”

Equally important to change in the arts were technological advances: “Three major technological advances altered the musical landscape from the twenties onward. First, electrical recording allowed for sound quality of unprecedented richness and dynamic range. Second, radio transmission allowed for the live broadcast of music coast to coast. Third, sound was added to motion pictures.”

The many excellent reviews on these pages leave else to be said but here are a few quotes from this wordsmith extraordinaire :

“The Soviet dictator (Stalin) often attended opera and ballet at the Bolshoi, where he made a show of being inconspicuous.”

Re: La Monte Young and west coast minimalism – Young’s Trio for Strings “has all the momentum of continental drift”.

Re: Shostakovich: His body constantly twitched, as if something were struggling to escape from it.”
( )
  Jeannine504 | Jan 23, 2016 |

I'll be honest: I stopped reading this after about a third, although I dipped in and out of the rest. Ross says that this book is "not just for those well versed in classical music but also--especially--for those who feel passing curiosity about" it (xiii-xiv), but I think the merely curious would have trouble penetrating the thick fog cover of unexplained references to names and events. On the other hand, the "well versed" reader (which, depending on the chapter, I sometimes was, sometimes wasn't) will likely find his discussion superficial and magazinish.

What Ross mainly offers is broad analogies between musical movements and historical events, spiced with gossip. You aren't going to get eye-opening music analysis, but you'll learn which composers were in-laws with whom, whose adulterous affair caused whose suicide, etc. etc. etc. You'll learn that Alban Berg's family ran a religious goods shop frequented by Bruckner--but "those who feel passing curiosity etc." will have to read another book to find out who Bruckner was.

Analysis tends to consist of the generous application of colorful adjectives combined with trite biographical criticism: Here we find Webern musically depicting the shock of his mother's death--you know the sort of thing (cf. 62).

On 112-13, Ross disposes of the Bartok quartets in three sentences, and then spends an entire paragraph daydreaming about a 1927 meeting between Bartok and Janacek ("Posterity would love to have a precise record of that conversation, but. . ."). Is it too much to ask that a book of this kind devote more words to the greatest quartet cycle of the 20th century than to describing a meeting about which almost nothing is known?

More signal; less noise.
( )
1 vote middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
This is a very well written and interesting book. It puts music in the 20th century into a historical context and discuss its development along other socio-political developments of the period. It is fully of little anecdotes that make it doubly interesting. Given that I am not trained in music, I had a problem relating to the description of the songs. Saying that something starts at C major and moves on to B flat means nothing to me as I cannot imagine how these notes sound. So it would have been nice if the words that Ross used to describe the song were easily mapped into daily experiences that most people could relate. But as a result I learned a lot about 20th century music since I had to constantly stop reading and listen to the song on YouTube. I would have finished the book in a week if I did not have to constantly sample the music. So what I heard was a lot of noise and unbearably bad music, but there were also some pieces that were quite good. Which leads to conclude that most of the 20th century composers were more about the new technique and the need to break away from the European music of the previous century and less about the songs they were writing. ( )
  Alex1952 | Jul 10, 2015 |
Excellent. I listened to most of the book on audible, it's a shame you just get the text and not interspersed music.

The middle section on the period surrounding World War II worked te best because of the integration of history, mini-biography and music. The chapter on Benjamin Britten, focusing on Peter Grimes, was also very strong, but essentailly functioned as a standalone chapter rather than an integrated part of a larger narrative. Which is true of much of the book. But also true of much of 20th Century classical music -- which isn't exactly Alex Ross's fault. ( )
1 vote nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Although I'm a music lover, and listen to a lot of classical and jazz, the 20th century is pretty dark to me. Frankly I don't understand a lot of it, don't care for more of it, and some of it I hate. It's noise.

This book relates the heart of the composer's world during the 20th century. The author connects what the composers are writing to the movement of history, politics and changing values of culture and society. The book sets aside as less relevant music written for entertainment, hence, film composers, except avant garde films are largely ignored. For example, John Williams is not mentioned at all. Another Williams, Vaughn is mentioned just once in passing.

The 20th century saw great tragedies, the destruction of 19th century aesthetic values, and the rise of nihilism and the march of despair. Composers reflected that in their music. At the same time composers pushed the limits of what the ear can hear and the mind perceive, especially making use of new technologies such as recordings and digital manipulation of sound.

I was astonished to learn that producers of rock and pop like Bob Dylan were deeply immersed in both classical and modern musical theory, using what they learned in their songs. And that was also true of the jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Gershwin.

The book will challenge the reader's knowledge of music theory as he describes musical works and what they do. For myself, I will only really understand the book after going back and listening to the works he describes. The greatest value of the book for me was expanding my list of works I need to listen to.
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
In the process of laying out his history in sound, Ross fashions what amounts to a tacit revisionist picture, a small quiet revolution of his own. He gives the traditional trinity of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók their due, both historically and technically, likewise other important figures like Webern and Cage. But the longest and warmest chapters in Ross' book concern the late-Romantic Finn Jean Sibelius and the eclectic but mostly tonal Brit Benjamin Britten. Those two and Shostakovich form a sort of counter-trinity in Ross' book: three composers who bucked the Modernist narrative that revolution is the name of the game, who wrote much of the time in traditional genres however personalized, and who were some of the most crowd-pleasing of 20th-century composers.

I asked Ross if he had intended a strike at the old consensus. The answer was: not exactly as such. "My plan all along," he replied, "was to write a book that would encompass both the Modernist revolution and those composers who fell outside of Modernism's conventional lineage. I didn't plan on supplanting the hierarchy that already existed (if I were capable of such a thing), but, rather, to supplement it. So, I see the century in terms of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók AND Sibelius, Shostakovich, Britten, AND—very central to me—Berg and Messiaen." Ross adds that the view of the Modern period, or any period, can't be summarized in only a few figures: "When we talk about 19th-century music, we don't try to boil it down to three composers. I don't know if anyone with a straight face would say that the major composers of the 19th century were, say, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner ...What about Schubert? Brahms? Berlioz? Etc. It should be the same with the 20th century."
added by elenchus | editSlate.com, Jan Swafford (Sep 1, 2008)
The book achieves a remarkable interdisciplinary synthesis, in which music illuminates history as well as vice versa. Throughout, Ross fluently switches tempo and focus, between super-elegant New Yorker-style profiles of representative artists, and widescreen pans across whole movements and cultural periods, zooming in unerringly on fascinating detail. But what really sets his writing apart is the language he has forged to evoke sound. On The Rite of Spring: "Having assembled his folk melodies, Stravinsky proceeded to pulverize them into motivic bits, pile them up in layers, and reassemble them in cubistic collages and montages." On Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars: "There is a supernova of A major, billowing into the lowest and highest reaches of the orchestra and whiting out in fortissimo strings." ("Whiting out" is perfect.)
added by Milesc | editThe Guardian, Steven Poole (Mar 15, 2008)
“The Rest Is Noise” is a great achievement. Rilke once wrote of how he learned to stand “more seeingly” in front of certain paintings. Ross enables us to listen more hearingly.

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Strick, CharlotteCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"It seems to me ... that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to the world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret are inseparable from human nature." Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
HAMLET: ... - the rest is silence.
HORATIO: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! [March within.] Why does the drum come hither?
For my parents and Jonathan
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In the spring of 1928, George Gershwin, the creator of Rhapsody in Blue, toured Europe and met the leading composers of the day. (Preface)
When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the impulse to pit classical music against pop culture no longer makes intellectual or emotional sense. Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands. They are seeking the middle ground between the life of the mind and the noise of the street.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374249393, Hardcover)

Anyone who has ever gamely tried and failed to absorb, enjoy, and--especially--understand the complex works of Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, or even Philip Glass will allow themselves a wry smile reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's outstanding The Rest Is Noise. Not only does Ross manage to give historical, biographical, and social context to 20th-century pieces both major and minor, he brings the scores alive in language that's accessible and dramatic.

Take Ross's description of Schoenberg's Second Quartet, "in which he hesitates at a crossroads, contemplating various paths forming in front of him. The first movement, written the previous year, still uses a fairly conventional late-Romantic language. The second movement, by contrast, is a hallucinatory Scherzo, unlike any other music at the time. It contains fragments of the folk song 'Ach, du lieber Augustin'--the same tune that held Freudian significance for Mahler. For Schoenberg, the song seems to represent a bygone world disintegrating; the crucial line is 'Alles ist hin' (all is lost). The movement ends in a fearsome sequence of four-note figures, which are made up of fourths separated by a tritone. In them may be discerned traces of the bifurcated scale that begins Salome. But there is no longer a sense of tonalities colliding. Instead, the very concept of a chord is dissolving into a matrix of intervals."

Armed with such a detailed aural roadmap, even a troglodyte--or a heavy metal fan--can explore these pivotal works anew. But it's not all crashing cymbals, honking tubas, and somber Germans stroking their chins. Ross also presents the human dramas (affairs, wars, etc.) behind these sweeping compositions while managing, against the odds, to discuss C-major triads, pentatonic scales, and B-flat dominant sevenths without making our eyes glaze over. And he draws a direct link between the Beatles and Sibelius. It's no surprise that the New York Times named The Rest Is Noise one of the 10 Best Books of 2007. Music nerds have found their most articulate valedictorian. --Kim Hughes

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:58 -0400)

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The scandal over modern music has not died--while paintings by Picasso and Pollock sell for millions of dollars, works from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. Yet the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Music critic Alex Ross shines a bright light on this secret world, taking us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, and riots. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.--From publisher description.… (more)

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