The Rest is Noise

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The Rest is Noise

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Jan 1, 2008, 2:29pm

Alex Ross's insightful and dramatic look into music of the 20th Century is wonderfully written. Ross frequently writes for the NY Times and has undertaken a heavy task in a surprisingly absent field. I expect this is common ground for dissertations and scholarly discussion, while the layman appreciator of new music is left out of the game. Not so with this tome; it's 500 pages historical musings right up to 2000 will serve.

Now if only someone would write a MORE detailed look at music of the last quarter century and into the 21st without being afraid to skip Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, we might actually feel that there is a larger community of new composers with the interesting, insightful voices that they actually have. This book, the book that will celebrate the NEW composer, is as yet out of my grasp. Anyone?

Jan 1, 2008, 4:36pm

A new year - a new group. Congratulations barclayb. I look forward to reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. I've been reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and have learned new ways of listening therefrom.

I hope to find more music-related books here as other LT members join: Novels like The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thaddeus Carhart and The Time of our Singing by Richard Powers, biographies such as Stradivari's Genius: Five violins, one cello and three centuries of enduring perfection by Tony Faber (really it's a biography of six of Stradivarius's/Stradivari (?)'s instruments), and books like Levitin's (above).

I've been disappointed by many biographies of musicians. Any recommendations?

3ijackson Primeira Mensagem
Jan 3, 2008, 1:05pm

Yes, congratulations barclayb, and thanks for creating both this group and this thread.

The list of qualities that I admire about Ross/Noise grows apace. Most of all, I appreciate his contextualizing the modernist narrative, a dogma that has held sway for far too long, some might say. I love the way he tucks nuggets of the personal into an informed historical appreciation. And I am grateful for the manner in which he weighs the African American contributions to the 20th century's music: appropriate, even respectful without being patronizing.

Question for Thrin: what biographies have you found partially successful and on what bases? Such info might lead to specific recommendations.

Jan 12, 2008, 9:37pm

ijackson: It's years since I read the disappointing biographies and I don't remember much about the books at all. The were probably potted-biographies of the "guide-to" variety. Bare facts, dry, plodding writing. However, now that more people have joined this group I plan to scour their libraries for likely suspects. My eye has been caught by some of rebcamuse's books tagged "music" (not all biographies): Shostakovitch: A Life by Laurel E. Fay; Talking Music by William Duckworth; The Muse that Sings by Ann McCutchan; Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the 16th Century by Knud Jeppesen.

I thought of beginning a new topic and leaving this one to The Rest is Noise, but on second thoughts maybe "The Rest is Noise" is quite appropriate for most Music Lovers' posts for the time being??

Jan 13, 2008, 1:38pm

Thrin - in answer to your last point I will agree - the more I read Ross's "Noise" the more all-inclusive it seems for our purposes.

I've just re-read the Sibelius section. A NY Times article from last November by Bernard Holland comes to mind about composers not living in 'time' but living in 'speed.' Holland makes a risky, and unfortunately erroneous observation that Schubert, though dead at 36, lived a full life and had no more unique music to offer. The same with Mozart. Oddly, this argument does have some traction with Ross's lengthy discussion of Sibelius; a man of 'absolute' music struggling with how to enter the modernist dialogue. But I love the twist in the final pages - any alleged inability to jive with the Schoenberg or Stravinsky clubs is in historical retrospect a radical, personal, prized stance: the risky embrace of one's unique voice. I think of Bernstein here.

Biographies? Try Eric Bazzana's "Wondrous Strange" biography of Glenn Gould - it is fabulous!

Jan 13, 2008, 1:48pm

ijackson: I agree about the African American thread - wonderfully insightful, balanced, and seemingly thorough. The Duke-Gershwin dialectic was totally new for me, especially surrounding the Porgy and Bess premier. Ross's observation of the Duke as being a fundamentally collaborative creator, and therefore unable to write an opera as response was a new insight. The endless squabbling over the proper genre of 'Porgy' speaks to the uncomfortable and taboo sentiments of a Jewish bourgeousie having completed the Grail of a Negro opera, at least for that decade. Gershwin's brain tumor, once again a heartbreaking historical event.

This chapter discussed the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 quite a lot - just finished a marvelous book on the subject that comes highly recommended: Erik Larsson's "The Devil in the White City." It centers around the chief architect of the world's fair and the serial killer taking advantage of the many young women attracted to Chicago because of it. Non-fiction fact crime at its best!

Jan 13, 2008, 2:01pm

By the way, here's the Holland article:

"Speed is critical in composer's lives, not length"

Responses highly encouraged.

Jan 30, 2008, 3:42pm

#7 barclayb

I read the Holland article. Very interesting - but I'm not entirely convinced! To me Schubert's early death is one of the great tragedies of the musical world and I often wonder just what he would have produced as he grew older - with all the experience of ageing he would have had on which to draw.

Thanks for pointing me towards the nytimes article - is brilliant: I've been reading about Schoenberg, Brahms and Getting Rid of Melancholia recently.

My problem now - what with LT and sites like - is finding time to read books!

Fev 7, 2008, 9:05pm

Greetings! Since I actually got mentioned in this thread, I figure I should post something. ;-). I will order my copy of Ross' book this weekend. I don't know why I've put it off...I'm looking forward to reading The Rest Is Noise very much.

I haven't finished putting all my music books into my catalog yet (I'm a musicologist), but I'm excited that LT makes it so easy to share our books with each other.

Fev 25, 2008, 2:46am

At last I have been able to purchase a copy of Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise". What an absolutely fascinating book. I'm not very far into it yet, and have been wondering how to hear many of the musical works referred to.... and I think I've hit on a solution (apart from purchasing all the music on CD). Here in Sydney we have an excellent FM radio station: 2MBS-FM which has a "Listeners' Choice" programme on the first and third Sundays of each month from 11a.m to 1p.m. and on the fourth Sunday at noon, so I intend to request many of the works that I would like to hear! Unfortunately the time of day might not suit many of you in the northern hemisphere, but here is the web address if you'd like to explore 2MBS's varied programming:

Maio 12, 2008, 1:23am

Thrin, how have you been enjoying the book? Have you had any luck with your radio station call-ins? You should snoop around where Ross has shared links to iMixes of the music, through iTunes.

I myself am in the market for a CD Anthology of Contemporary Music. Anyone know of any? I'd bet it would most likely be found as a companion to whatever is the text book staple of that course. Though if I were teaching I'd probably assign Ross, the Paul Griffith, Modern Music, (a shorter text for his slightly differing perspective), and maybe a chapter of Structural Functions in Music by Wallace Berry. I'm also enjoying Alban Berg by Theodore Adorno though his writing his labored.

Editado: Maio 17, 2008, 7:53pm

#11 barclayb: I still haven't got far into The Rest is Noise. "Life" intervened again and my concentration has not been what's needed to fully appreciate "The Rest.....". I've been reading more fiction lately. Shall get back to Alex Ross soon though.

No joy from my call-ins yet! I probably won't have to rely on this tactic now thanks to your pointing me towards

Can't help you with a CD Anthology of Contemporary Music, but surely there must be one.

I'm way out of my depth when it comes to things like Structural Functions in Music, but wonder whether there might be something of interest in a programme on one of our Sydney FM stations entitled "Contemporary Collective". It's scheduled for midnight (Sydney time) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have no idea what it is like as I'm always asleep (or reading) at that time. You can listen on-line at

edited to say that I now see I've mentioned the above radio station before in (on?) this thread. My memory-span is getting shorter by the day!

Out 18, 2008, 6:10pm

Well, finally I have got back to The Rest is Noise, and am astounded by the amount of research that must have gone into it. My problem is that there are so many connections to be made... social, political, etc., that my mind wanders off onto various side-tracks and I dash off to refer to other works relating to the various periods, social movements and so on referred to in The Rest.... So the book has become a much used reference work for me - I find I must put it aside for a rest (the "rest" that is noise?) to give myself time to assimilate all the information and to listen to the music itself. I think it is a superb effort on the part of Alex Ross and it is a book I shall keep close at hand.

By the way, I am looking for information on Renaissance music just now. Any recommendations?

Nov 30, 2008, 12:56pm

Dear Thrin - sorry to take so long before any of us has given you a good rec! If you're still peering around for Renaissance lit, try Allan W. Atlas. His book Renaissance Music and its companion Anthology of Renaissance Music which may or may not come up on LT, will give you the overview. I've studied both texts and enjoy his writing. It's textbook-style, but in a very readable way. Also quite comprehensive! BB.

Nov 30, 2008, 3:46pm

Thanks barclayb... Yes I am still "peering around" (an apt expression) for information on Renaissance music and shall ferret out the works you recommend.

Dez 24, 2008, 2:39am

Barclayb was asking about an anthology of contemporary music. One thing comes to my mind—an eight-disc box titled Rückblick Moderne, which was released by Col Legno at the turn of the decade.

Fev 18, 2009, 6:56am

Darsu - thanks for the suggestion. Tragically, the box set you write about has been discontinued by the publisher - a bummer, because it looks like exactly what I wanted. Know of any other?

Fev 21, 2009, 3:04am

Alas, nope—but such boxes are on the road to redundancy anyway what with the advent of streamable catalogue databases such as Naxos Music Library.