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The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century | [Alex Ross]

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century

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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

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.

©2007 Alex Ross; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

What the Critics Say

  • National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism, 2007

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Paula Milwaukee, WI, USA 02-18-08
    Paula Milwaukee, WI, USA 02-18-08
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    "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!

    43 of 43 people found this review helpful
  •  
    R. Wagner Victoria, Australia 01-16-09
    R. Wagner Victoria, Australia 01-16-09 Member Since 2008

    Windsweptmusic

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    "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.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Priscilla Spooner, WI, USA 03-31-09
    Priscilla Spooner, WI, USA 03-31-09
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    "The best book I've "read" on the subject"

    Being a music student, I am surrounded by information on my obsession of choice. However, I find that it is difficult to find good sources for more contemporary music development, style and history. This book provides more than an overview, as it carefully delves into nearly every imaginable aspect of western music in the last century.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jim Boston, MA, United States 03-01-12
    Jim Boston, MA, United States 03-01-12 Member Since 2007
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    "Wonderful if you have some musical training"

    I really, really loved this book. However, I think that some other listeners might be put off by the need to really have a musical background to fully enjoy this book. If you don't know what a dominant 7th or a tritone is, for example, you might find long sections of this book tedious. But, if you've studied music or are a really serious aficionado, then this book is hard to put down.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Neer Tarzana, CA, United States 06-20-09
    Neer Tarzana, CA, United States 06-20-09
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    "Solid and Fun Listening"

    This audiobook is to classical music what Bill Bryson's A Brief History on Nearly Everything is to Cosmology. If you enjoyed that work, you will enjoy this. It is packed with insight not only into the masterworks of classical music, but the lives of the composers, their unique relationships with each other, and the history of the time. Its brilliant, and I could not get enough. The narrator is a perfect complement to the book.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mary Bridgewater, NJ, United States 03-03-08
    Mary Bridgewater, NJ, United States 03-03-08
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "just couldn't get into this one"

    I am truly interested in classical music, and listen to a lot of it --- including what was covered in the first 4 CDs-worth of this book.

    I may at some point buy the book and read it in my own fashion.

    But the reader put me to sleep. Too monotonous and flat. I suspect, though, that the subject is better suited to a combination of speed-reading and flipping to and fro, and that requires a hard copy.

    8 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Benjamin Silver Spring, MD, United States 09-24-12
    Benjamin Silver Spring, MD, United States 09-24-12 Member Since 2010

    Likes to listen while doing chores; likes to write reviews while he should be doing chores.

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    "I'd Read Ross Even He Just Wrote Warning Labels"

    When I began reading this book I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I had the mistaken impression that this was a history of music of the 20th century across all musical genres. It is not that. This book focuses on the history of classical music of the 20th century. It covers jazz, but only how jazz affected and was affected by classical music.

    I had half a mind to forego reading the rest of it. Boy am I glad I didn't. I'll be frank, I don't have a particular driving interest in the classical music of the 20th century and even after reading the book, while I am better informed, I have not suddenly become a fan of the genre. It was worth it to read this book just to hear Ross string words together. This guy can write. I kept reading just to find out what chain of words he was going to use next. He's that good.

    This is the kind of guy you would quote without attribution at a dinner party to set yourself apart as the most erudite person in the room. I'd give anything to be able to write like this. Ross has a 10th degree black belt in the English language; that's the bottom line.

    One note I'd like to add as a point of critique about the format. This audio book would be so much better served if excerpts from the pieces of music being described could be inserted at the proper points. I get that this probably isn't possible with the licencing of some of the music, but it would certainly bring the audio book full circle. It would be the entire package. For all that Ross is a master of using English to describe music, when he tells me that Charlie Parker "scribbled lightning in the air," I like the sound of the words. But what does that sound like in music? This book is great, set it to music and it would be a masterpiece.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jumpin' Jahosaphat Springfield 06-25-08
    Jumpin' Jahosaphat Springfield 06-25-08 Member Since 2004

    Egads

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Dullsville!"

    Okay, perhaps my title is a bit rude but this book is specifically for and can only be enjoyed by a classical music lover - one who is particularly familiar with the works discussed in the book.

    I consider myself to be a lover of classical music but this book bored me because I had no accompanying music to hear and nod my head to in agreement with the author!

    7 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Andrew San Diego, CA, United States 09-19-08
    Andrew San Diego, CA, United States 09-19-08 Member Since 2007
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    "Not a work for the unitiated..."

    Like many of the composers about which he writes, Mr. Ross appears have some disdain for mass appeal. Without at least some grounding in music theory, particulary the theories of harmony, this book can be expected to only mystify. I myself have only a brief and non-formal grounding in that area, and I was only able to get a small feel for the works being described. Unfortunately, without musical example, verbally describing symphonic works simply doesn't work.

    Beyond that disclaimer, this is an interesting (though very selective) overview of the interaction between the sequestered world of classical composing and outward reality.

    Unfortunately, what often comes through is simply the disdain the classical composer has for the rest of us. That along with Mr. Ross' delight in pointing out the homosexual composers whether or not it is germain to their works drags this work into a quite bleak view of the century.

    The narration was good in pace and articulation, although a number of non-English words are poorly pronounced.

    8 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Saud United States 04-27-14
    Saud United States 04-27-14 Member Since 2007

    Learn, understand, then decide whether you accept or reject.

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    "Talking about music"

    If you want to discuss music in an audiobook, you should use the medium and provide musical samples of what you're talking about. This is excusable for print, but not excusable for this medium.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
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  • Sara
    London, United Kingdom
    7/1/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "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.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Fatmusketeer
    Warwick, UK
    5/2/13
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    Story
    "Modern classical music made more accessable"

    The greatest complement I can pay to this title is it made me want to go and listen to the classical music of the twentieth century. The story is clearly told and well structured, taking the listener from R Strauss' Salome to modern minialism and beyond. It certainly helped my appreciation of some very difficult pieces as well as helping to point out the seminal works. I could quibble that some composers such as Elgar and Rachmaninov bearly get a look in because, although they are popular, they don't fit the mainstream of modernism. Also if every there was an audiobook that cried out for musical samples, this was it. But I would recommend it to anyone wanting to gain an understanding of what has happen to composition in the last 100 years.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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