four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
By: 
Alex Ross
user_rating: 
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Listening to the Twentieth Century

A-The Rest Is NoiseIn this much-anticipated book, music critic Alex Ross provides a cultural history of classical music in the 20th century, starting in 1906 with the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss's shockingly dissonant opera Salome and closing with John Adams's brilliant opera Nixon in China in 1987. Ross scrutinizes the century's stars-Copland, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky-and examines the works they produced and the trends they espoused. Against the cultural and historical backdrops of 1920s Paris, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and postwar avant-garde America, Ross traces the influence that times, places, people, and events exerted on composers and their creations, as well as the impact that classical music itself has had on pop culture and modern music styles.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 640 pages. $30. ISBN: 0374249393

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers of The New Yorker are already familiar with music critic Alex Ross's insightful writing and his ability to bring sounds and styles alive through erudite yet passionate consideration. The Rest Is Noise, his long-awaited tome on 20th-century music, is, not surprisingly, a brilliant, hugely enjoyable, cultural history viewed-and heard-through, as he puts it, 'the chaotic beauty' of music from this past chaotic century." Susan Miron

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite routine pronouncements of the death of the form, with record sales and attendance figures evidently plummeting, Ross sees classical music as a consistently viable analog to the historic course of the century. ... In that spirit, Ross's history is freely associative and impressively omnivorous." James Sullivan

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Time and again, Ross finds ways to distill comprehensible themes out of vast and potentially mind-boggling material. ... Perhaps more importantly, Ross grasps music on a profound, composerlike level, and that mastery allows him to rise above dry analysis to describe music as possessing physical as well as aural characteristics." Zachary Lewis

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Ross spent six years toiling at it, and while he breaks no new ground, what distinguishes Noise is his ability to weave the century's cataclysms into a single, compelling narrative. ... The book reads like a novel." David Stabler

New York Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Rest Is Noise is a work of immense scope and ambition. ... Inevitably, as we draw closer to the present, the quantity and range of material make it difficult for the book to sustain the concentration achieved mid-century." Geoff Dyer

Critical Summary

The classical music critic for The New Yorker, Alex Ross has a reputation as one of the most perceptive and humorous voices in the industry. Even so, The Rest Is Noise-a play on Hamlet's last words, "The rest is silence"-is an ambitious undertaking, one that critics unanimously proclaimed a success. Ross's lively, accessible prose and striking visual images bring the music he describes vividly to life. His anecdotes are amusing, and his revelations are far-reaching and profound. Though he arranges his material in chronological order, his narrative never descends into a clunky, decade-by-decade sequence of events. Instead, Ross gauges the legacy of classical music-its shaping of jazz, swing, pop, rock, and hip-hop-in this compelling book.