Review: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

>>Published: 2007

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

By the last scene of Act I, when the brutish Drum Major forces himself on Marie to the tune of dissonated C-major chords and the strains of “We poor people,” the method of the opera is clear. Strongly dissonant writing suggests the working of abstractions: the cruelty of authority, the relentlessness of fate, the power of economic oppression. Tonal elements represent basic emotions­—a mother’s love for her child, a soldier’s lust for flesh, Wozzeck’s jealous rage. The theme contradicts Schoenberg’s utopian notion that the new language could replace the old. Instead, Berg returns to the method of Mahler and Strauss, for whom the conflict of consonance and dissonance was the forge of the most intense expression. Consonance is all the sweeter in the moment before its annihilation. Dissonance is all the more frightening in contrast to what it destroys. Beauty and terror skirmish, fighting for Wozzeck’s hollow soul.

***

Racking up praise and award nominations upon its release in 2007, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a dense, compelling thesis. Across continents and cultures, Ross examines the nature of musical composition in the 1900’s, looking at the effect music—primarily classical—had on politics, culture, war, and people, and the countering role that a world in flux and at war had on the composition and evolution of music and compositional styles and methods.

Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, presents a wealth of research that dissects musicians, composers and their art, moving linearly through the century, with multiple lenses: from the perspectives of the composers—their personalities, histories, political affiliations, and their private lives; through detailed analysis of the theory and structural composition of specific pieces; filtered through the eyes of politicians, leaders, and common folk as they traverse through economic collapse, wars, social and racial development, and the cultural transitions of art as it moves from European nations to North America, giving birth to new styles and approaches along the way. The synthesis between the two—how music affected the world and the world affected music—is handled beautifully, deftly guiding readers to understand the timelessness of theories outlined in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art, that “Everything we do is located in, and therefore affected by, social structures.” As with any art, no composer works in a vacuum—their work is changed through their interaction with the world, and the world’s interpretation of their work changes their methods of production. The two concepts are forever intertwined, something which Ross goes to great lengths to illustrate in every chapter of this book.

The breadth of information in The Rest is Noise is almost staggering. Never has my training in classical music and theory been more useful than in reading this book. Ross doesn’t shy away from employing detailed musical theory in any of his analyses, and the text is stronger for it. The richness of content, especially in the first two sections (covering the first half of the century, up until the end of the Second World War), offers a certain level of authenticity that often makes the book feel less like a historical tome and more like a hybrid of styles that relies—possibly too much for some readers—upon one’s in-depth knowledge of the theory and techniques at hand more than it does culture and history.

The book is not perfect, however. The third section, detailing the entire second half of the century, feels more disjointed and less investigative than the first two sections. Though the focus throughout the book is on the evolution and impact of predominantly classical music, I would have liked more time devoted to the elements of such composition and how they have been modified and transposed through the growth of specifically North American styles—rock, pop, jazz, experimental, and avant-garde. While classical composers are given their due throughout the book, composers and musicians of more contemporary styles are presented as second-tier players in the grand scheme. This doesn’t tarnish the book’s overall quality, but it’s an unfortunate oversight all the same.

The Rest is Noise is a rich, savoury read. Ross’s analysis is always engaging as he slowly unravels a narrative vein to the century that few would likely have known or given thought to. Like all artists, the musicians and composers of the twentieth century were players and puppets at the same time—installing themselves in social and political circles, invisible or otherwise, while maintaining whatever artistic autonomy they could. Some changed the world, but all were changed by the world.

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