The Rest Is Noise takes the listener inside the labyrinth of modern music, from turn-of-the-century Vienna to downtown New York in the '60s and '70s. We meet the maverick personalities and follow the rise of mass culture on this sweeping tour of 20th-century history through its music.Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism. In addition, he was named a 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, given for achievements in creativity and potential for making important future cultural contributions.
Like the origins of a musical idea waiting to be developed through the course of symphony, Adrian Leverkühn, the titular musical genius of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, foreshadows The Rest is Noise. Mann has Leverkühn attend a performance of Richard Strauss' Salome in 1906, the same event that opens The Rest is Noise. Alex Ross lists Leverkühn's fictional attendance along with that of the historically correct presence of Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, the cream of doomed European society - and the 17-year-old Adolf Hitler. in Mann's book, Leverkühn contracts syphilis around the same time from a prostitute who goes on to haunt his work; the implied germination of something dark and destructive - musically and historically - sets the tone for Ross' hugely ambitious book.
if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker, is Nureyev with a notebook. Critics may quibble with the lack of academic theory in his descriptions of music (in this regard, it's constructive to compare his book with Charles Rosen's The Classical Style), but he has an undeniable gift for enabling the reader to 'hear' the outline of the music he describes (or at least make them believe that is what they're hearing): "Strings whip up dust clouds around manic dancing feet. Brass play secular chorales, as if seated on the dented steps of a tilting little church...Drums bang the drunken lust of young men at the center of the crowd." Consequently, there are countless moments in this book where the temptation to download the music is overwhelming - clearly, copyright issues and running time barred inclusion of musical segments in this recording, and it's a tribute to Ross' style that this omission isn't a critical blow.
The author's forte - obsession, even - is to conjure up sweeping historical vistas and then focus in on the tiny details that bring biographies to life: Charles ives' stint as an insurance salesman, the discovery by Alban Berg's brother of the teddy bear as a marketable toy. Ross also likes to draw historical parallels between the careers of very different composers. However, comparisons with works outside the genre don't always convince of their relevance, for example Sibelius' 5th with John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Everyone from Britten to Björk, Ellington to Einsturzende Neubauten is invoked, which is fun but can feel arbitrary. At these points, the listener is reminded of the author's other career as a prolific blogger - blog writing seems to invite a certain loftiness of authorial position from which vantage point sweeping generalisations are made; The Rest is Noise can occasionally fall into this trap. But with such a huge amount to cram in, this is easily forgiven.
Grover Gardner narrates this sprawling epic, leading the listener through the maze of allusions, dates, and the constant switching from the macro to the micro. He also deserves a medal for his navigation of the minutiae of musical theory, not to mention an international cast of unpronounceable names. -Dafydd Phillips
National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism, 2007
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Learned so much!
Excellent for serious music enthusiasts
- R. Wagner