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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. -Dafydd Phillips
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Paula on 02-18-08
Learned so much!
I'm a professional musician and I spent an entire semester as an undergrad studying 20th century music, but there were many times during my listen to "The Rest..." when I went- hey, I didn't know that!
Ross starts us out at the turn of the 20th century in the hotbed that was German late-Romantic music (Strauss, Mahler), and we walk through the remainder of the 20th century, not necessarily in chronological order. Instead, Ross deals with places and chunks of time, putting composers and the way they wrote into the context of social and political history: Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, 20's Paris, New-deal USA, Soviet Russia, Post- WWII Europe, 60's NYC, and so on. The trick for the listener is to remember that this is world history seen through the lens of music history.
Yeah, you're gonna learn quite a bit about what went on musically. But even if you already knew a lot about that, you're gonna understand what it was like to be a musician, why composers wrote music the way they did at certain times and places, and how people reacted to that music.
I would caution the listener that it's a fairly musically sophisticated book. Ross hastens to assure us that he did not write it as a music history text, but as a guide for the educated concertgoer/ listener, and I think that's true. However, be prepared for some fairly advanced terminology. This is not for the newcomer to the world of "classical" music.
It's taken me almost 2 months to wade through this book. It's long and dense, and I went back over some sections again because I just really wanted to absorb all the information. It's totally worth the work though, for a fine understanding of musical history and just-well- history. Ross also has a website connected with the book which is chock full of exerpted recordings of the pieces he discusses.
Learn! Listen! Enjoy!
49 of 49 people found this review helpful
By R. Wagner on 01-16-09
Excellent for serious music enthusiasts
This book is an important contribution to writings and analyses of 20th century music. It deals largely with 'serious' musical art forms and does so, for the most part, in great depth. By providing the political and social backgrounds during the lives of some composer, Ross enriches the book with valuable contexts that help us to understand the music of each period. He continually makes interesting connections between each composer with both their peers and mentors, providing some astonishing insights that are not commonly known. Fascinating stuff! The period in Europe between 1900 and 1945 is most effectively delivered and illuminating, as is American art music in the 50's and 60's.
Ross is a wonderful writer who employs rich descriptive language and a nice balance between facts and occasional humorous antidotes. The narrator does a fine job of endeavoring to bring the text to life without letting too much unnecessary drama get in the way. It's a large book, and he moves it along at a good pace.
As already indicated by several other reviewers, this book is not for everyone. It would be particularly relevant to the serious music enthusiast, students and music educators, and arts historians. Recommended.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Sara on 07-01-14
Adding colour and context to 20thC Compositions
What made the experience of listening to The Rest Is Noise the most enjoyable?
As a musician who has mostly performed 20th Century music - Contemporary Classical, for my career, this book gave some interesting insight, really rounding out the history that I had learned while studying back at school/uni, and while performing.
What did you like best about this story?
I really loved hearing the context of where composers were in their life, geographically, politically, philosophically, psychologically, when they wrote particular pieces. Especially the effect that Hitler and other Political leaders had on these artists trying to live their lives.
What about Grover Gardner’s performance did you like?
The narration was ok, not one I would have written home about. Engaging enough.
Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
Not really an emotional story! Though actually, knowing the context of Benjamin Britten's writing, and the challenges composers faced in trying to balance authorities opinions with their own artistic integrity, was really interesting. Also amusing to hear composers funny little opinions of each other.
Any additional comments?
Such a pity that they couldn't have spent some time/money getting the rights to some musical excerpts. I knew what the author was talking about a lot of the time, but only because I've performed and listened to a lot of classical music. Excerpts giving examples of what he was talking about would make this book much more accessible to music lovers who don't necessarily study or perform. And would have refreshed my memory a little. In this format, it seems crazy that they didn't consider these audio illustrations.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
By See Me Hear Me Feel Me Ltd on 12-01-16
Excellent but classically focused book
This book is extremely well researched and delivered.
However, those looking for a broad study on 20th century music should note that this book focuses on classical music. Other forms are touched on (particularly jazz) but the vast majority is a study of classical music. I didn't get that from the reviews I read and was expecting more on blues, soul, reggae and hip-hop.
That's not to fault the book. It broadened by horizons and was a fascinating read but if you are looking for a wider study you may have to look elsewhere.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Don on 12-17-15
Captivating- first class audiobook
I come from no knowledge of music history. My reason for choosing this book was to seek a link between my interest in the music of Greenwich village of the 1950-60's and what came before. I thought a writer for the New Yorker would be entertaining and informative and Mr Ross did not let me down. I also chose the audiobook form because I knew I would struggle with the book. Well, it had me captivated for a month in my daily commute to work. It has outlined a far more rich and diverse origin of music than I had imagined. It gave me knowledge of key composers to the present day and it was a good read, albeit sometimes a tough slog. The author's command of language added to the listening experience but I'll need to get the hard copy now because it's impossible to bookmark when driving! I was particularly interested in his documentation of composers "plundering the past" which seems to be a common criticism of more recent songwriters but confirms what people like Pete Seeger have said - that it was the history of music - ideas passed on from one to another. But as well there were new ideas like the atonal, the 12 note music etc of which I knew nothing and now will explore. Well written, well read and well done - thank you