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Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise - Listening To The Twentieth Century

Chris May By

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The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century

Alex Ross

640 pages; hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-84115-475-6

Fourth Estate


In summer 1944, a few weeks after Allied forces landed in Normandy, a new student arrived at the Paris home of composer Olivier Messiaen. "M. Boulez (pupil of Pierre Jamet) at my house at 9.30," Messiaen wrote in his diary. "Likes modern music," he added.

It proved to be the understatement of the century. Pierre Boulez, the most fervent iconoclast among contemporary classical music's wild-eyed avant-garde, arrived on the scene just as the music was about to splinter into dozens of competing factions, each more revolutionary than the last—twelve-tone composition, total serialism, chance music, timbral expressionism, Dadaist happenings, found-music collages and a dozen more. For the next few decades, the media-savvy and politically astute Boulez sat as self-appointed judge of all of them, and found most wanting.

Boulez's interventions make revealing and occasionally gruesome reading, as do the obeisances offered him by composers at least his equal, and run through the second half of Alex Ross' monumental history of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century. Forensically researched and scholarly, and running to 640 concisely written pages—but a page-turner for all that—the book provides the general reader with a definitive guide to the chronology, personalities, achievements, ideologies, posturings, rivalries and bitch-fests of contemporary classical music from 1906 (the year in which Richard Strauss' seminal modern opera, "Salome," was premiered) through to the new millennium.

The book's strength derives not only from the ability Ross, a writer on The New Yorker, has for describing musical sounds and theories vividly and in a way understandable to the non-academic reader, but also from its strong narrative structure. There are three main sections: Part I, 1900-1933; Part II, 1933-1945; and Part III, 1945-2000. Within these, Ross positions the work of each composer under scrutiny within the broader political and cultural ecology in which he lived and worked—and from which, in the age of ideologies, his music was more or less inseparable. Politicians, dictators and the great and the good of the last century all figure large in Ross' fascinating and illuminating story.

While there is, fortunately, no likelihood that jazz and the conservatoire will ever morph together as one, the interaction between the two traditions is increasing—and for jazz listeners, Ross offers an authoritative and entertaining go-to guide to the other side of the fence.

Raved over by practically every reviewer, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century—which is also available in paperback—is as good as they say it is.



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