The Rest Is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross is a landmark book on 20th century classical music. I must confess that I was initially put off by the title. It sounds like a reactionary book by some conservative American music critic who thinks that all music from Schoenberg onwards is just noise. My prejudices were confirmed when, on a visit to a bookstore, I opened the book on a random page and noticed some disparaging remarks about Pierre Boulez and a reference to the "cultural largesse of the European welfare state".
Eager to fill a gap in my knowledge, eventually I put aside my reservations and ordered the book, but because the paperback edition is quite voluminous and doesn't easily fit into a briefcase, it ended up on my bookshelf.
I'm glad that I finally came around to reading it and now wish I had done so earlier. The Rest Is Noise provides an excellent overview of 20th century classical music. It is also a joy to read.
I don't usually enjoy reading biographies, because they tend to be full of redundant details about non-essential periods in a person's life, but I found the many mini-biographies in The Rest Is Noise quite inspiring. As it turns out I'm not the only artist with a full-time job as a side job. I knew that Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver until after the premiere of Einstein on the Beach, but I was unaware that Steve Reich and various other composers also had side jobs until well into their career.
Alex Ross does portray Pierre Boulez as the bogeyman of 20th century classical music. Boulez may well have been an obnoxious character in his youth, together with other music students he once disturbed a Stravinsky concert, but later in life he conducted some of the best Stravinsky recordings. Boulez also composed one of the greatest works of the late 20th century, Pli selon Pli, which Ross doesn't mention.
Surprisingly, Alex Ross fails to observe that the first performance of The Rite of Spring and countless other early 20th century compositions may well have sounded awful. It is commonly thought that the riots that ensued during the premiere were precipitated by the composition. But perhaps the audience was offended by the performance. At the time most musicians were amateurs who had little time to rehearse a new work. As a result many premieres may well have been botched up. Today we can hear the works as they were intended.
Ross also devotes an entire chapter to Benjamin Britten and spends various pages retelling the libretto of Peter Grimes. Although some of Britten's operas have entered the repertory, in my humble opinion he is more of an ahistorical figure: he didn't make school like John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Then again, one could also say that Stockhausen is an ahistorical figure, since his music is hardly performed let alone listened to anymore.
As Alex Ross rightly points out, classical music, or what is commonly referred to as classical music, is still very much alive. It can be heard in movie soundtracks, commercials and ringtones. Artists such as Julia Kent and Zoe Keating breathe new life into the cello with the aid of electronics. Kelly Moran shows that John Cage didn't have the last word on music for prepared piano. And Pitchfork gave the first and second album by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson a score of respectively 8.9 and 8.8.
This review by Alex Ross of a book by the British critic Tim Rutherford-Johnson Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989, serves as a good 21st century postscript to The Rest Is Noise.