|HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHERS|
the observer Sun 22 March 2009
"I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name," Alex Ross wrote in a provocative essay for the New Yorker in 2004. "It traps tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today ... when people hear 'classical', they think 'dead'."
The Rest Is Noise is Ross's sustained celebration of the tenaciously living music of the 20th century. It begins with the "golden age" of Strauss and Mahler and ends with John Adams's Nixon in China. Though you may need to pause for breath from time to time as Ross rushes headlong into the theoretical thickets of atonality, minimalism and discordance, his energy is such that you are swept along in his wake. Which is not something you can say for some of the music he describes. The book sent me in search of what Ross calls "the seething landscape of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern", which, I have to admit, remains a difficult to the point of defeating terrain for this ever-curious listener.
The music I was familiar with fared better and Ross is passionately illuminating on Debussy and Stravinsky, though I wanted more about Shostakovich's struggle to make meaningful music under the murderous gaze of Stalin. Indeed, the book's second section, which looks at music in America, Russia and Germany from 1933 to 1945, deserves a volume to itself.
In tracing the trajectory of 20th-century experimental music, Ross has written a kind of impressionistic, secret history of that tumultuous time. He barely touches on the great jazz iconoclasts, though - Coltrane receives short shrift, Ornette Coleman is mentioned once in passing - but surely their work helped define the century as much if not more than the likes of such anaemic minimalists as Reich or Glass.
Quibbles aside, though, The Rest is Noise is an exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, read, and the breadth and depth of its scholarship is breathtaking. A book for the curious and the faithful alike.