The Rest is Noise

Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex Ross

Fourth Estate h/b £20

As you might expect from someone who has been the music critic of the New Yorker since 1996, Alex Ross is a masterly writer. Stravinsky was of 'insectoid appearance'; Morton Feldman 'set loose the imp of chance';Twentieth Century Music was an 'obscene pandemonium on the outskirts of culture'; 'falling between two stools was the essence of Gershwin's genius'; Stockhausen is 'tirelessly neologistic', and we learn that 'churches outnumber cabarets in Harlem'. All are vivid, fresh images, the overview - at 600 pages - generous. Clearly, that's the view of the American literary world. In March, The Rest is Noise won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. One foresees this brilliant history rapidly earning a place on college and university reading lists.

Ross is particularly strong at relating the ostensibly unrelated:

'[Magnus] Lindberg made his name with a gripping piece called Kraft (1983-85), whose orchestra is augmented by scrap-metal percussion and a conductor blowing a whistle. At any given point, it sounds nothing like Sibelius - Lindberg cites the influence of noise-rock bands such as Einstürzende Neubauten - but the accumulation of roiling processes from microscopic material feels like a computer-age reprise of Tapiola.'

Or, when discussing Sibelius himself:

'At the beginning of the Fifth, the horns present a softly glowing theme, the first notes of which spell out a symmetrical, butterfly-like set of intervals: fourth, major second, fourth again. (Fifty years later, John Coltrane used the same configuration in his jazz masterpiece A Love Supreme.)'

Similarly, Ross attaches the lives of his composers to contemporaneous events. He tells us that Alban Berg's brother was a toy distributor who scored a sales coup by marketing the first teddy bears in 1903. Ravel's father was a Swiss engineer who helped to pioneer the automobile. John Cage was the son of an inventor who built one of the earliest functioning submarines. Richard Strauss was to receive a present of a Mercedes from Hitler for his eightieth birthday. Eventually Strauss received only a curt telegram.

The final pages are particularly strong, though Ross admits that there is little hope of giving a tidy account of composition in the second fin de siècle. 'Magazines that once put Bernstein and Britten on their covers now have time only for Bono and Beyoncé', he observes. His final pages range widely, to include Helmut Lachenmann, the Beatles, Thomas Adès, Björk, Osvalso Golijov and Georg Friedrich Haas, concluding a remarkable book.

John Robert Brown
First published in Classical Music magazine, 2008. Used by kind permission; reproduction forbidden.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb