Friday, January 21, 2011

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007. 624 pgs. Nonfiction

Caution: this book will not only strike you with awe, at how much Alex Ross knows and how well he expresses what he knows, but may also fill you with an insatiable need to listen to all the music described. Ross's encyclopedic work begins at the turn of the century discussing the revolutionary work of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss and then proceeds through the life and work of all the musical luminaries of the twentieth century including Schoenberg, Debussy, Copland, Gershwin, Messiaen, people I had never heard of, and, of course, the Beatles who were--who knew this!?--influenced by Schoenberg and Berg. What makes The Rest is Noise particularly interesting is how Ross shows how the political and social trends and upheavals of the twentieth century influenced its music (think Shostakovich and Stalin; Hitler, Wagner, and R. Strauss) and how the music created its own trends and political situations. And who knew that composers don't just write music how they want to and let their fellow composers write in turn as they wish? Turns out in many circles if you write tonal music you are a traitor to the cause of modernism and worthless as a human being, and God forbid you should compose music in a way not pleasing to Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible--and the grownup terrible--of the modern age who thought even Beethoven was a sellout. If you love music, read this book. If you don't, read it anyway and maybe you will.


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