Average Customer Review:
( 118 customer reviews )
Write an online review and share your thoughts with other customers.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
195 of 211 found the following review helpful:
Not Noise But The Sound of the Twentieth Century in WordsOct 19, 2007
By Michael Salcman
This magisterial book will, for many years, remain the definitive account of classical music (or art music, if you prefer) in the twentieth century, from the time of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler to the age of Steve Reich and John Adams. Ross situates his history of an art form within the swirl of contemporary developments in culture and politics. The many individual stories of composers and their chief works are unified through the use of literary themes, the philosophical musings of Theodor Adorno and a close analysis of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faust. Along the way, Ross gives us an absolutely riveting account of the musical scene in the Third Reich, covering the composers who stayed and were complicit with the regime, as well as those artists who either fled or perished. He covers music in the concentration camps and the life of composers under Soviet dictatorship. He makes links between modern performance practice and the rise of jazz, bebop and adventurous rockers like the Beatles and Radiohead. His knowledge is encyclopedic and his research prodigous. Here and there his enthusiasms betray him. The heavy emphasis on German music as the spine of musical development turns Wagner into the main 19th century ancestor to modern music, a leit motive throughout the book; he scants the incipient modernisms of Tchaikovsky and the Russian School, the contributions of Liszt, Berlioz and other French composers. The chapter on Sibelius is so long it feels like a Bruckner symphony, ditto the scene by scene analysis of Britten's opera Peter Grimes; these sections are among the few longeurs encountered in a historical text that generally reads like a mystery novel. This book is highly recommended for anyone who is afraid of modern music but be warned, it will make you go out and compulsively expand your library of discs!
91 of 100 found the following review helpful:
A Richly Informative, Engrossing Examination of Twentieth Century MusicDec 07, 2007
By Grady Harp
Alex Ross has the ability and the resources to write about the music of the 20th Century and to establish himself as the creator of the definitive volume with the publication of THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. His depth of knowledge is matched only by his ability to communicate with a writing style that places him in the echelon of our finest biographers. This book is indeed a comprehensive study of the music created in the 20th Century, but it is also a survey of all of the arts and social changes, effects of wars, industrialization, and quirks and idiosyncrasies that surfaced in that recently ended period of history: Ross may call this 'listening' to the 20th century, but is also visualizing and feeling the changes of that fascinating period.
Ross opens his survey with a detailed description of the premiere of Richard Strauss' opera SALOME and in doing so he references all of those in attendance (from Mahler to Schoenberg, the last of the great Romantics to the leader of the Modernist innovators) and focuses not only on the chances Strauss took using a libidinous libretto by the infamous Oscar Wilde to the astringent dissonances that surface in this tale of evil and necrophilia. The ballast of that evening is then followed throughout the book, a means of communicating music theory and execution in a manner that is wildly entertaining while simultaneously informative.
Ross studies the influence of nationalism in music (the German School, the French School, the British and the American Schools) and then interweaves the particular innovations by showing how each school and each composer was influenced by the simultaneous destruction and reconstruction of the world borders resulting form the wars of that century. He dwells on the pacifists (Benjamin Britten et al) and those trapped by authoritarian regimes (Shostakovich et al), following the great moments as well as the dissonant chances that found audience at times far from the nidus of origin. Ross crosses the 'pond' showing how American music nurtured in the European schools ultimately found grounding in a sound peculiar to this country (Ives, Copland, etc) and allows enough insight as to the influence of jazz to finally satisfy the most critical of readers.
Ross, then, accompanies us on the journey from melody to atonality and back, all the while giving us insights into the composers that help us understand the changes in music landscape they induced. The book is long and demanding, but at the same time it is one of the finest 'novels on a music theme' ever written. Highly recommended not only to musicologists, ardent music lovers, and students of the arts, but to the reading public who simply loves history enhanced by brilliant prose. Grady Harp, December 07
78 of 88 found the following review helpful:
A feast, a delight, a partyOct 20, 2007
By Kevin McMahon
A history of 20th century music with the history left out, thankfully. Ross writes vividly about specific compositions and imparts his enormous enthusiasm. Everyone who dips into this book will compile a list of works to hear. His avidity is a model for other listeners: he approaches Metataseis with the same eager expectation of enjoyment as the Firebird. And happily his enthusiasm is focused solely on the music--the ideologies, manifestoes, movements and politics of 20th century classical music he approaches with extreme scepticism. He is especially good at teasing apart a composer's words from a composer's music. Naturally he has preferences: he provides several full-length portraits of Strauss and Stravinsky at different points in their long careers, and movingly profiles Shostakovich and Britten, but Schoenberg and Cage appear more as instigators than artists, and Boulez is given up as an obnoxious enigma. But overall, I can't imagine a better guide. While modernism in the visual arts has been pretty much embraced by culture at large (e.g. the crowds at MOMA or Tate Modern), musical modernism, the tradition of 20th century classical music, has not. Whatever the explanation, Alex Ross thinks it's a shame that more people don't know it and love it. He certainly loves it, and it's prompted some of the best writing on music since Bernard Shaw.
31 of 34 found the following review helpful:
A Social History of 20th Century MusicNov 12, 2007
By B. R. Townsend
Alex Ross' excellent book is what you might call a 'social' history. He doesn't ignore the analytical side (though following recent practice, there isn't a single bit of notation in the whole book) and gives pretty good prose evocations of how a lot of music was put together--Webern's partition of a twelve tone row into three-note segments, for example--but focuses rather on the whole flow of things, on the relationships between composers and with society. He isn't afraid to quote Webern's sycophantic praise of the Third Reich, for example.
The book is non-ideological in the sense that he steps back and views the infighting and political jockeying for position from outside. It becomes clear that virtually all 20th century music is political or politicized to a considerable degree. Or suffers from politics! The truth Ross isn't afraid to recount is that a lot of 20th century composers, especially among the 'progressives', were playing the avant-garde game of achieving fame through being merely annoying. Many accounts of 20th century music, when they weren't mere chronicles, are either dryly analytical or manifestos for one camp or another (such as Rene Leibowitz' book on Schoenberg and his school).
Ross is particularly keen to rescue certain composers from the condescension of the 'progressives'. Three in particular are Sibelius, Shostakovich and Britten. Boulez comes across as a particularly nasty piece of work on the condescending side. There is a large section on Hitler's musical tastes which is surprisingly relevant because, as Ross points out, it was the Nazis and their love of certain music (and in return the loyalty a remarkable number of composers and conductors showed them, Karajan, for example) that cost 'classical' music its moral authority. He points out that, pre-WWII, classical music was coded in popular culture with higher things. But afterward, we find that every villain loves classical music. The example that springs to mind is Hannibal Lector and the Goldberg Variations.
One interesting point Ross makes is that while there were few religious pieces written by major composers in the 19th century, the 20th century teems with them--everyone from Stravinsky to Messaien to Arvo Part. (He calls works like the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems concert music with Latin text, which is fair enough.)
Ross' book reminds me that we tend to forget how really beautiful a lot of 20th century music is: Messaien, Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms), Shostakovich, Part, Adams and on and on. I will forgo the near-obligatory list of people he left out or said too much about.
This book is possibly the best history of 20th century music I have read and I have read most of them. It is refreshingly free of adherence to one camp or another and, while idiosyncratic, is enjoyably so. I would say that this would be the book on 20th century music I would most recommend even to a non-musician.
22 of 25 found the following review helpful:
A highly accessible, fascinating read into the twentieth century's musicDec 28, 2007
By The Cultural Observer
Much ink has been spilled about modern classical music and the intellectual hurdles that it presents to audiences accustomed to the tunes of the 1800s. While Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso's creations of abstract grotesquery have snaked their way into the mainstream arts culture, Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen's masterpieces still belong to that mysterious realm of works that continue to baffle modern audiences with their unconventional takes on composition.
The subject of modern music is no novelty to the shelves of any distinguished bookstore; but the majority of books published on it are often shrouded in the language of academia, often confounding its readers even more than the obtuse sounds penned by its composers. In contrast to many of its predecessors, Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; $30.00) brilliantly disseminates the code of modern music by seamlessly coalescing the history of the 20th century with the great composers who propelled this musical evolution. With his mastery of the languages of music and prose, Ross offers a read that is accessible and thought provoking.
Alex Ross, classical music critic of the New Yorker, has always astounded me with his extraordinarily engaging and highly intelligent music critiques. The Rest is Noise, a seven-year work that culminated in this recent release, is perhaps his finest work to date. Ross' book reads like a novel, with composers like Strauss, Shostakovich, and Copland and political figures like Hitler, Stalin, and Kennedy as characters in the history of modern music. Its narration is a tour de force that sweeps the reader through the 20th century, taking us from genres as diverse as opera, chamber music, and symphonies to jazz, bebop, and tin-pan alley.
The first chapter begins with the music of the early 1900's, a bygone epoch during which Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss reigned as the kings of musical Vienna. These titans had just released two controversial works--Strauss' Biblical sexpot, Salome and Mahler's First Symphony--to a musical audience besotted with the Classical and Romantic traditions. In an age when the world was still recovering from the quasi-atonality of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Mahler and Strauss' more striking musical innovations proved groundbreaking in paving the way for the century's esoteric musical language.
Ross takes us to the war-and-politics-smitten world of Mahler, Strauss, Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Ravel, Sibelius, Janacek, Schoenberg, Krener, Korngold, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Bartok, Berg, Weill, and Webern, all of whom were subjected to the socio-political environment of pre-50's Europe and America. This era is highlighted by the pieces that each of these masters composed during times of war, oppression, liberation, politicking, and racism. The reader sees the world through the eyes of the Jewish Schoenberg composing atonal pieces in a Germany that swore death to Judentum; the patriotic Janacek and Bartok exploring the possibilities of combining folk tunes and ethnic speech modes into their operas and orchestral works; the African-American Duke Ellington reforming jazz during a time when blacks were banned from the white temples of music; and the fiscally cunning Strauss penning operas and tone poems in an environment where collaboration with Jewish musicians could mean death in the Third Reich.
The author winds the clock forward to the decades of Stravinsky, Britten, Varese, Boulez, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Gorecki, and Shostakovich, all of whom caught their audiences at the edge of their seats with unconventional, non-conformist compositions. The reader is treated to extensive analyses of Stravinsky's shocking ballets and orchestral suites, Britten's ventures into operas hinting at homosexual themes, Shostakovich's schizophrenic pieces seesawing between Soviet genius and political slavery, and Messiaen's oddly transfiguring liturgical works. Never before have the musical languages of the avant-garde and the modernist been so lucidly translated, and in here we develop an understanding of the psychological impetus that drove these composers into challenging their audiences with an art form opposite to the musical dialogues of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.
Included also is a spatter of writings on American composers who forged the distinct musical voice of the New World. Copland the populist, Barber the American Schubert, Ives the modernist, and Cage the Yankee avant-garde are a few of the composers who played seminal roles in shifting the pendulum of musical America from the Old World to the New. Of interest to the admirers of independent music is the section on the minimalist composers Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich. This triumvirate of composers played huge roles in influencing the work of musicians like Sigur Ros, Björk, the Beatles, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, the Talking Heads, and Sufjan Stevens, each of whose work is brushed on lightly with Ross' incorporation of insight from the century's musical heritage.
As a fitting close to his book, Ross surveys the condition of classical music in the present century. The author stipulates that today's classical composers have achieved the once-impossible task of impregnating their theories into the vernacular language of pop. Music is in a state of flux, and the face of classical composition has metamorphosed from exclusively white to multiracial; from exclusively male to one that includes females; and from sounds deriving purely from classical instruments to those that stem from the most unimaginable sources. Foreign composers like Tan Dun, Unsuk Chin, Toru Takemitsu, Osvaldo Golijov, and Sofia Gubaidulina and even pop geniuses like Björk and Radiohead all play integral roles in transforming the landscape of classical music. This epiphany may come as strange to those who have been cultured to believing that great classical music stopped with the death of Tchaikovsky, but cultural and gender diversity have recently played integral roles in shaping the way we listen to the world.
In the end, Ross' book addresses a subject that is relevant even outside the musical sphere. You don't have to be a lover of classical music to thoroughly enjoy the wealth of insights that the author has to offer. And if you do, this book can easily inspire you to listen to the pieces Ross so vividly describes in this fascinating chronicle of cultural and musical history. Even now, as I listen to the closing pages of Berg's 3 Pieces for Orchestra, I look back to those pages Ross so generously wrote about the composer's personality and his genius. My understanding of Berg has never been clearer.
See all 118 customer reviews on Amazon.com