The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Burbank, Richard D. | Notes, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Burbank, Richard D., Notes


The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. By Alex Ross. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. [xiv, 624 p. ISBN-13: 978-0-374-24939-7. $30.] Illustrations, bibliographic references, discography, index.

Music librarians have a treasure in this wonderful new book: unlocking the treasure chest itself is best accomplished by reading the index first. That way, names you might want to see in the text but that do not appear there will not surprise you. The index provides a detailed overview of just who and what are discussed in the book. Next, read the preface. That is where Alex Ross reveals his purpose: "Each chapter cuts a wide swath through a given period, but there is no attempt to be comprehensive: certain careers stand in for certain scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor" (p. xiv). Ross emphasizes in his preface that he "chronicles not only the artists themselves but also the politicians, dictators, millionaire patrons, and CEOs who tried to control what music was written; the intellectuals who attempted to adjudicate style; the writers, painters, dancers and filmmakers who provided companionship on lonely roads of exploration; the audiences who variously reveled in, reviled, or ignored what composers were doing, the technologies that changed how music was made and heard; and the revolutions, hot and cold wars, waves of emigration, and deeper social transformations that reshaped the landscape in which composers worked" (p. xii-xiii). After reading the book itself, the reader may want to read the endnotes to find out just where all of these bits of information came from, and to see how artfully Ross has woven them into his text.

Ross freely admits that "portions of the book originally appeared, in different form, in The New Yorker." He also states that his subtitle is meant literally: "this is the twentieth century heard through its music" (p. xiii). He informs the reader that the book is the result of fifteen years of work as a music critic. He also occasionally reiterates the purpose of the book as the text unfolds, as, for example, when he writes that the book illuminates "the cultural predicament of the composer in the twentieth century" (p. 185). These interjections make the book an excellent lesson and a wonderful ride. Finally, near the end of the book, Ross once again highlights his intent: "This has been a book about the fate of composition in the twentieth century" (p. 514). As the text on the book jacket points out: "The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music."

Here, then, are some composers the reader will not find in Ross's book. It is important to list these names so that, in case the list contains some of your favorites from the twentieth century, you will be able to calm down and allow Ross to shine his own lights on that century: Isaac Albéniz, Dominick Argento, Arthur Benja min, Richard Rodney Bennett, Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss, Ernest Bloch, William Bolcom, Henry Brant, Havergal Brian, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, Michael Colgrass, Roque Cordero, Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, Frederick Delius, Edison Denisov, Jacob Druckman, Gottfried von Einem, Gerald Finzi, Elena Firsova, Michael Finnissy, Arthur Foote, Alberto Ginastera, Umberto Giordano, Rheinhold Gliere, Alexander Gretchanin off, John Harbison, Elizabeth Lutyens, Bruno Maderna, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Victor Herbert, Alun Hoddinott, York Höller, Vagn Holmboe, Jacques Ibert, Vincent d'Indy, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Andre Jolivet, Joseph Jongen, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Jean Langlais, Paul Lansky, Benjamin Lees, Ton de Leeuw, Alan Jay Lerner, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Jules Massenet, Nicholas Maw, Thea Musgrave, Andrzej Panufnik, Vincent Persichetti, Astor Piazzolla, Bernard Rands, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Ottorino Respighi, Wolfgang Rihm, Edmund Rubbra, Aulis Sallinen, and the Tcherepnins. …

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