Sunday, March 28, 2010


Let me belatedly join the chorus of acclamation that has greeted Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Anyone looking for an excellent, informative, well-written, highly readable introduction to Modernist music can stop looking: This is the book. In addition to covering all the usual bases of 20th century music history (Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Adams, et al), Ross rescues Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and the classic works of Aaron Copland from decades of sentimentality and kitschy interpretation, reminding us of Gershwin's hero-worship of Berg (and Porgy's affinity with Wozzeck) and the 1930s leftist politics that informed Copland's vision. We are also given an eye-opening account of Richard Strauss's complex and conflicted relations with Nazism. (It turns out Strauss was not entirely a Nazi lapdog, but he was clearly and tragically in over his head.) On a somewhat lighter note, Ross gives us a wonderful look at the European composers in exile in Los Angeles during WWII, the surreal high point of which must surely be his account of Schoenberg's very public reaction to Mann's Doctor Faustus. (Get the book and read it for yourself.) Ross's chapter on Sibelius is likewise informative and beautiful (as is his account of Messaien), and the chapter on Benjamin Britten forced me to finally buy the Naxos CD of Britten's settings of Donne, Michelangelo and Hardy, as well as the Philips CD of Peter Grimes. And that's probably the best review anyone can give a book like this: it encourages us to listen more widely and more closely, to listen to things we might never have heard before, and even to hear more in pieces we think we know well (like Sibelius). Of course I have my criticisms (the book is too Euro-Americo-centric; it only touches tangentially on rock and pop), but these are far outweighed by all that Ross has shown me. This book carved a highway through the vast Sahara of my ignorance of Modernist music and led me to many fruitful oases along the way.

And I suppose I should point out the multiply anagrammatic character of Alex Ross's name: He can be transformed into 'Solar Sex' (which Elton John famously spoke out against in "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"), 'Lax Roses', 'Lear's Sox', 'Ass Rolex' (which would be rather difficult to wear), the appropriately musical 'Sax Roles', and probably a few more...

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