The Rest is Noise
Of the three major musical categories (classical, jazz, and popular music), classical is easily my biggest musical blind spot. While I know your major works like Beethoven’s 5th and Copland’s Appalachian Spring, I am pretty lacking understanding classical music history beyond a couple classes I took in college. The Rest is Noise offers what appears to be a fairly comprehensive look at 20th century classical music, in a way that binds various artists, movements, and pieces together fluently.
Author Alex Ross has been a classical music critic at The New Yorker for almost 20 years, and his understanding of the form and its history is stunning, as is the amount of research that appeared to have gone into this book. From the deep detail on breaking down seminal pieces like Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck to the deep ideologies and personal histories that shape the works of Richard Strauss and Dimitri Shostakovich, Ross’s enthusiasm for the subjects is apparent in the scrupulous detail. Even with the enthusiasm shown by Ross, he doesn’t editorialize much when it comes to pieces he likes or doesn’t care for, which is important in a comprehensive history like this.
Probably 1/5th of the book if not more is devoted how World War I, World War II, and the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union affected classical music and how composers fell into the darkness. A number of composers like Strauss and Shostakovich were pressured to create music by and for the German and Russian government. Other composers felt incredible paranoia (and rightfully so) as to what the government might do about their pieces that might be viewed as less aligned with dictatorship. It was also interesting to see how something like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Schoenberg’s first use of atonality sent ripples and controversy really no different than Elvis’s hips or the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen.” Rock ‘n’ roll really does follow into a much longer line of pushing the envelope.
Beyond broadening my knowledge of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise no doubt introduced me to a number of composers and pieces of work I thoroughly enjoy, as I tried to follow along musically in Spotify as I read the book. Among my favorite discoveries were Finland’s Jean Sibelius, Terry Riley’s In C, Steve Reich’s City Life, and anything I heard by Olivier Messiaen. It was especially interesting looking at the avante garde and minimalist composers of the late 20th century, and how they have informed early rock acts like Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and the Beatles.
So for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of classical music (specifically 20th century), The Rest is Noise is a great place to start. It’s a beast of a book with a very dense 543 pages, but no doubt a great place to learn and discover more music.