The Rest Is Noise -
Listening To The Twentieth Century
Book Review By Willard Manus

The title is from Hamlet, the exchange between hero and Horatio at play's end. In his new book, Alex Ross expands on Shakespeare's line with this remark: "Twentieth century clasical composition...sounds like noise to many. It is a largely untamed art, an unassimulated underground. While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell for a hundred million dollars or more, and while experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms across the land, the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little perceptible impact on the outside world. Classical music is stereotyped as an art of the dead, a repertory that begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini. People are sometimes surprised to learn that composers are still writing at all."

In THE REST IS NOISE--LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Picador ppbk.), Ross sets out to put the lie to that misconception. His magisterial study of the classical music of our time shows just how alive and vital it is, even if it sometimes turns up in some unexpected places, such as jazz, pop and hiphop. Ross--music critic for The New Yorker and a 2008 MacArthur Fellow--also shows how closely classical music has been tied to the march of time in the last century: the wars; the religious, ideological and political skirmishes; the creative and technological developments.
Ross divides his book into three parts: 1900-1933, 1933-1945, 1945-2000, with an epilogue bringing his subject into the 21st century. The chapter headings reveal the impressive range and depth of his musical knowledge: "The Golden Age: Strauss, Mahler and the Fin de Siecle," "Dance of the Earth: The Rite, the Folk, le Jazz," "City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties," "The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia," "Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany," "Brave New World: The Cold War and the Avant-Garde of the Fifties," "Beethoven was Wrong: Bop, Rock and the Minimalists," "Sunken Cathedrals: Music at Century's End."
The author's insights into the work of such composers as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Philip Glass and Steve Reich are remarkable; he has a precise way of dealing with their artistic theories (and struggles) without sounding grandiose or academic. He's just as good, too, on the Broadway team of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and their groundbreaking musical, Show Boat.
"When it opened at Ziegfeld's opulent new theatre in New York, in December 1927, the audience was stunned into silence by the opening chorus, which was perilously far removed from the dancing girls and witty repartee for which Ziegfeld shows were famous. As the curtain rises, the showboat Cotton Blossom is stage left; stage right, black stevedores are loading bales of hay and singing, 'Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white man play.' If, as Marva Griffin Carter says, Will Marion Cook's musicals made 'confrontational jabs' at white listeners back at the turn of the century, Kern and Hammerstein delivered a slap in the face."
THE REST IS NOISE is packed from start to finish with provocative insights like that. It's no wonder that a fellow critic (Alan Rich) called it "the best book on what music is about--really about--that you or I will ever own."