The scandal over modern music has not died--while paintings by Picasso and Pollock sell for millions of dollars, works from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring onward still send ripples of unease through audiences. Yet the influence of modern music can be felt everywhere. Avant-garde sounds populate the soundtracks of Hollywood thrillers. Minimalist music has had a huge effect on rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Music critic Alex Ross shines a bright light on this secret world, taking us from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, and riots. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.--From publisher description.… (more)
If the book is hard to summarize on its own, summarizing my reading experience is even more so. I first started reading in February. Since I knew very little about classical music, and even less so about 20th century classical music, I determined to listen to many of the pieces mentioned in the text. Thankfully Ross includes an appendix of recommended recordings - a "top ten" and then 20 additional recommendations. I focused on the main ten, especially when I realized how much of a time commitment symphonies and operas truly were. And mind you, he sometimes lists more than one piece for one composer, so this was still more than 10 CDs I committed to.
What an experience! I didn't like everything I listened to, but it made the book come alive wonderfully. I listened to my first opera. I started to hear the atonality, the dissonance, that Ross so often refers to, especially in the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (I noted next to this that this was "not music to wake up to"). I really enjoyed the connections I was able to make between the text and other, outside elements. For instance, in my notes on the pieces I listened to, I noted that one of Schoenberg's orchestral pieces reminded me of the orchestra playing at the end of "I am the Walrus." I was delighted to read a bit later on that a portion of Sibelius's 7th symphony is referenced in the Beatles song "Revolution 9" - a different song, yes, but I felt the comfort of having a similar idea and bringing together something familiar with the new information I was learning. And the learning will continue - I've made a note of music I want to look into, both referenced in the text and not (after all, now I need to learn about earlier classical music, too!), and of a few composers - Mahler and Stravinsky come immediately to mind - that I enjoyed enough to find more.
A truly memorable read.
Also, he does a very good job of placing the music in its broader cultural and political contexts without that ever being overbearing. Another plus is that he has the extremely rare gift of being able to describe pieces of music in a way that gives an idea of what it sounds like, and without bewildering the reader with technicalities.
He also has many 'ah yes!' insights along the way. I'll just give a couple of my favourites.
He argues, based on features of the physical way people perceive music, that twelve-tone music will always be unsettling in a way that can't be wholly accounted for by the fact that it's an unfamiliar idiom. (He's not *anti*-twelve-tone music, far from it, but just thinks that we should acknowledge that it really is difficult to listen to, and that that's not just down to closed-minded listeners.)
Another bit I liked was the way he tells the history of post-WWII American music, where Cage comes out as a major liberating influence, not just from tradition, but from the European avant-garde as well. So he traces a lineage from Cage to Feldman to Lamonte Young to Riley and Reich. (Sadly, Alan Hovhanness gets left out of Ross's story here, whereas I think he should have been mentioned as a key figure. He and Cage were good friends, and admired each others’ music despite the obvious differences.)
Another point I liked was where he quoted Duke Ellington objecting to people saying that jazz is 'modern classical music' or 'black classical music.' Ellington thought that to call jazz any type of classical music was to deny jazz its own ‘original genius’. I've always thought something like this, but it's good to know that I have the authority of Ellington on my side!
Incidentally, some of the reviewers made a big point of the supposed fact that Ross tells the whole story of 20th century music from Mahler to the Velvet Underground. The truth is that it is a history of classical music compositon in the 20th century, with jazz and rock being discussed a bit, but only as part of that broader cultural context I mentioned earlier.
Of course I have some reservations. One minor one is the journalistic tone of some of the writing - e.g. on the first page Gershwin is introduced as 'George Gershwin, creator of Rhapsody in Blue''. I can't fully articulate why this phrase annoys me so. I think it's got something to do with the facts that (1) Gershwin didn't 'create' Rhapsody in Blue, he composed it; (2) one would think that anyone wanting to read a book on the history of 20th century music would know who George Gershwin was. Also, people who use "[sic]" when quoting people as often as he does really should look to the beam in their own eye. (You'll see what I mean if you read it.)
That might just be me, but a more serious complaint I have is that British composers are almost totally neglected. He talks about the influence of folk music traditions on composers, and he discusses the usual suspects - Bartok, Janacek, etc. - but *where is Vaughan Williams??* Likewise, Tippett barely gets a mention. The only British composer to get extended treatment is Britten. He gets a whole chapter to himself, including a ten-page summary of Peter Grimes. Now, I like Britten but this seems excessive, and only makes the neglect of other British composers all the more galling.
He does *almost* compensate for this at the very end with one nice remark, on how British music went through many of the same phases as music elsewhere, but 'without the constant background noise of ideological disputation.' A nice little insight I think, especially as he has told a plausible story about how it wasn't just in the Soviet Union, but in Western Europe and the U.S. as well, that composers were subjected to political pressures.
On the whole the book has a bit of an Americo-centric bias - for example, you would get the impression that the most important thing Messaien ever did was to visit Utah.
But please don't be put off by my complaints! Any book that aims at this kind of comprehensiveness on *any* subject is bound to strike any reader as biased or lacking in some ways. On the whole it's a great read, from which you can get plenty of both new information and new insights. As you'd expect, the comments about the immediate present and the speculations about the future are a bit vague. But they are optimistic, and he makes optimism about music's future seem plausible.
A final word of warning: if you do read this book, you'd better either have a very large collection of 20th century music, or a lot of money to spend on building one! Time and time again you will find yourself reading Ross's description of a piece and saying to yourself "I want to hear that *now*."
The revelation came in the form of explaining why we hate modern classical music so very much. The reason is poetry. Modern classical music is like modern poetry; if you can't read it, you can't appreciate it. Imagine hearing a poem by e e cummings. Unless you see the text, you've missed the lack of punctuation, the spacing, the geometric splashing of the words on paper. You've missed 90% of it by only hearing it.
So with modern classical music. Unless you can read music, and have the music in front of you, you cannot possibly appreciate the progressions, the geometry, the calculus of the piece. That is why composers cited by Ross have taken their bows facing the orchestra, sticking their butts out towards the audience. The audience be damned; they can't possibly appreciate it. Only musicians can enter the temple. At numerous points towards the end, melody is identified as a horror to be avoided at all costs. Astonishing peer pressure among composers ensures that no one steps out of line and writes something pleasant to hear. The objective is to break new ground in sound, but call it music.
You can look at modern classical as movie soundtrack, and of course many composers earned their living that way. They fill in moods, complement scenes, create atmospheres. But even that has gone away. Today, it's all about mathematics, it seems. Twelve tones, interminable repetition, and instrument abuse are the cornerstones as composers seek to stand out from the pack.
Too bad. The public just wanted a diverting night out on the town. A tune they could hum on the way home. Composers have joined the establishment in their own anti-establishment way. Like banks and health insurance companies - the customer be damned. We're doing what we want, for us. Period. Alex Ross explains it all in fascinating detail. My only criticism is his website. How wonderful it would be if every musical description in the book had a sound file counterpart, referenced to that same chapter and page, on the website. Then we could hear what he described in such incredible detail and evaluate and appreciate his analysis and description of it. Maybe even fit it into context. As it stands, there are some clips, but that's about it. Too bad, but hardly a reason not to buy this important work of love.
The middle section on the period surrounding World War II worked te best because of the integration of history, mini-biography and music. The chapter on Benjamin Britten, focusing on
A glut of information, generously larded through with singular anecdotes and quotes, surrounded by the obvious and intense love for the subject felt by Alex Ross.
In some ways it is the
If you have any passing love for any composer who lived in this century, this book is a trove of eye-widening information.
If there were to be one critique, from me, about this book, it would be the author's tendency to focus on, in what is an otherwise even-handed historical overview, the topics he has a personal affinity for. Namely, Benjamin Britten. This isn't a problem for me because I knew nothing about any of these people, so any information was equally welcome. But he got a whole chapter to himself where no one else did. Just sayin'.
Lovely anecdotes re: Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Boulez and Stravinsky, Reich and Glass...
Despite the level of detail, I found the book to be quite readable; I was able to read the book at hundreds of pages at a time instead of tens of pages, the pace that I would have to use for some detailed texts, such as a scientific text. If the reader wants more information, Ross provides approximately 60 pages of detailed notes at the end of the text, a portion of his blog that contains links to some of the music that he describes in detail in the book, and a list of suggested recordings. Ross's opinions on the music and composers are apparent, but I like this in a non-fiction work.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand classical music, especially classical music from the 20th century.
The middle section on the period surrounding World War II worked te best because of the integration of history, mini-biography and music. The chapter on Benjamin Britten, focusing on
Ross does a terrific job telling the story of the history of music, the composers, national agendas and influences, and trends. The personalities, friendships and rivalries all come alive. Most important is how Ross describes the music. As the title indicates, he tells the reader what to listen for in the music, what exemplified a particular style, what signature passages made the composer worthy of note.
I was pleasantly surprised on how complete the book is considering the vast scope. Major composers, influential as they were, command a large part of the text but minor composers also got their due, whether they were perfecting the style set forth by a mentor or helped change the course of music, even slightly. While today an uninformed listener might consider pop and classical to be opposite ends of the spectrum, in reality, the distinction has always been somewhat blurry. One of Sibelius' greatest hits was a waltz that became wildly popular in Vienna. Prokofiev and Korngold, among others, wrote notable scores for Hollywood or the movie industry. Jazz developed as almost a spin-off; many jazz greats either had classical roots or greatly influenced classical composition, like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. In modern times, the likes of Brian Eno, David Byrne, Bjork, and even the pop-hit producer Timbaland are entwined with classical influences. The emergence of China as a political power is mirrored by it's rise on the cultural scene as well...and a wealth of eastern music and musicians are part of the new repertoire gracing concert halls throughout the US and Europe.
For me personally, prior ages of classical music have always been easy to understand. The baroque era is marked by ecclesiastical influences as composers experimented with polyphonic tones. Music of the classical age is is orderly and generally predictable -- not surprising as it was born during the Age of Reason. Romantic and Impressionistic music captures imagery and emotion. The 20th Century styles have all seemed less easy to grasp, mostly because I've always tried to listen to it as I had earlier music. I'm not sure if I'm going to suddenly like Schoenberg or Cage or Reich any more than before, but now I understand better where they are coming from, and what they were trying to accomplish. A greater understanding of the trendsetters will also help me better follow stylistic themes among their disciples. It'll take a few months to know for sure, but this book could represent an "eureka" moment that removes a barrier erected by ignorance.
Ross loves this music, and it's clear that he lives with the pieces he writes about. He write with affectionate detachment throughout, and doesn't gloss over the moral failings of great artists (Strauss in particular is shown to be tragically bullheaded) He dips lightly into musicology and often meanders into funny, sometimes dishy, anecdotes about these sometimes comically grave characters that made music in the twentieth century. Ross also is willing to let the music speak for itself -- odd to say about a book, I know -- but in this book Ross is very careful about decoupling the music from the pretensions of its creators.
I can't speak for true music people, but if your curious dilletante like me, this book is invaluable.
I love classical music. I play and write it, and I wanted to learn more about it. Twentieth century music has always amazed me, but I never knew much about it. A teacher recommended [The Rest is Noise], and I'm glad he did. The book talks about a huge range of styles
The only reason that I didn't give this 5 stars is because people who haven't studied music might not have fully understood it. Besides that, [The Rest is Noise] is a masterpiece. I would highly recommend it.
Among others, it describes the period of 1933 to 1945 - the most tragic period of XX century. What is shocking is how close was music to politics of all sorts. The figures of Richard Strauss or Anton
But it also shows that in the later part of XX century, music became less "political" and more engaged in itself - in creation of "The imaginary country that cannot be found on a map" (Debussy).
Alex Rose, shows us what makes the great music, free from politics, when he writes:"The debates over merits of engagement and withdraw [of music] has gone for centuries (...)Composition only gains power from failing to decide the eternal dispute. In a decentered culture, it has a chance to play a kind of good-father role - able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past".
I do not see, and I believe, the author also does not think that way - that the music CAN in fact be motivated by what happens in the world - it cannot be isolated. But, what is the great hope, that the music is not, and will never be played to fulfill some crazy dictator's agenda ....
I strongly recommend this book for everyone who is interested in modern music.
Learning about the role of music
Quoting: “The period from the mid-thirties onward marked the onset of the most warped and tragic phase in twentieth-century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means. On the eve of the Second World War, dictators had manipulated popular resentment and media spectacle to take control of half of Europe. Hitler in Germany and Austria, Mussolini in Italy, Horthy in Hungary, and Franco in Spain. In American, FDR was granted extraordinary executive powers to counter the ravages of the depression....particularly when federal arts programs were harnessed to political purposes. In Germany, Hitler forged the most unholy alliance of art and politics that the world had ever seen.”
Equally important to change in the arts were technological advances: “Three major technological advances altered the musical landscape from the twenties onward. First, electrical recording allowed for sound quality of unprecedented richness and dynamic range. Second, radio transmission allowed for the live broadcast of music coast to coast. Third, sound was added to motion pictures.”
The many excellent reviews on these pages leave else to be said but here are a few quotes from this wordsmith extraordinaire :
“The Soviet dictator (Stalin) often attended opera and ballet at the Bolshoi, where he made a show of being inconspicuous.”
Re: La Monte Young and west coast minimalism – Young’s Trio for Strings “has all the momentum of continental drift”.
Re: Shostakovich: His body constantly twitched, as if something were struggling to escape from it.”
This book relates the heart of the composer's world during the 20th century. The author
The 20th century saw great tragedies, the destruction of 19th century aesthetic values, and the rise of nihilism and the march of despair. Composers reflected that in their music. At the same time composers pushed the limits of what the ear can hear and the mind perceive, especially making use of new technologies such as recordings and digital manipulation of sound.
I was astonished to learn that producers of rock and pop like Bob Dylan were deeply immersed in both classical and modern musical theory, using what they learned in their songs. And that was also true of the jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Gershwin.
The book will challenge the reader's knowledge of music theory as he describes musical works and what they do. For myself, I will only really understand the book after going back and listening to the works he describes. The greatest value of the book for me was expanding my list of works I need to listen to.
The thing is, a big splashy survey like this is going to grip you or not grip you based at least partly on what it emphasizes, and what it doesn't emphasize. To put it more bluntly: does the author's judgments
And to be fair, the overlap will NEVER be 100%, and you're probably lucky if it tops 50% ... and yes, perhaps it's unjust to rate a book based on something like this. But I kept thinking things like "I wish Ross had given more pages to X than Y." To make this concrete, I wish Ross had spent more time with Charles Ives than with Aaron Copland. I realize Copland is important, I guess, but he is a composer who has never truly grabbed me -- and to be honest I think Ives was more important.
And of course I thought things like "huh? one sentence on Carl Nielsen? one mention of Per Norgard? really? why do you hate Denmark, Mr. Ross" (I'm exaggerating a little, there)? No ... you can't cover everyone in a just-under-600 page survey. But still.
Ross's ability to describe music in prose has been praised. For me this works a lot of the time, but sometimes it just doesn't.
Still, a really wonderful book.
Audiobooks are a relatively new departure for me, and i've had a couple of experiences where the reader has definitely NOT done the book any service (Richard Preston's Wild Trees comes to mind).