Early on in his new book, Alex Ross identifies one thing that separates music from other arts: “At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rhythm. They are a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.” Though Ross doesn’t say it outright, that also applies to crowds of composers.
Much of his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is spent wrestling with the idea of the push and pull of the crowd and the “split between modernist and populist conceptions of the composer’s role.” There’s that clever insinuation in the title. Though the book brings up a lot of music, yes, but it’s also about listening to the era, the shifting alliances and rivalries among composers, the feedback loop of popular culture, ethnicity, politics, war.
And the buildup to and endurance of wartime dominates the much of the book. His description of the Teens and Twenties has some eerie parallels with today:
For anyone who cherishes the notion that there is some inherent spiritual goodness in artists of great talent, the era of Stalin and Hitler is disillusioning. Not only did composers fail to rise up en masse against totalitarianism, but many actively welcomed it. In the capitalist free-for-all of the twenties, they had contended with technologically enhanced mass culture, which introduced a new aristocracy of movie stars, pop musicians, and celebrities without portfolio. Having long depended on the largesse of the Church, the upper classes, and high bourgeoisie, composers suddenly found themselves, in the Jazz Age, without obvious means of support. Some fell to dreaming of a political knight in shining armor who would come to their aid.
Two recurring characters appear in the first half of the book. The first is Thomas Mann‘s book Doctor Faustus, about a composer who makes a bargain with the devil and whose fictional music owes a lot to the real music of Arnold Schoenberg. The second is the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, a scandalous early 20th-century opera. Opera comes up quite often. It’s easier to talk about the music with an explicit emotional narrative. Ross can let the libretto tell the story rather than relying exclusively on musical description or intuition. There are also long treatments of the operas Wozzeck, The Threepenny Opera, Peter Grimes, and Nixon in China.
It makes sense to talk about the big works, the standbys, the headlines. I don’t think he meant to create a comprehensive book, so of course there are some unfortunate absences. Ross mentioned that he regrets he could have spent more time writing about “conservative” composers. Rachmaninov, for example, only gets a few mentions. Though he’s a modern-day orchestral standby (and one of my personal favorites), he didn’t shake things up enough to make it to the book. Carl Nielsen and a bunch of the British also get passed over. Nonetheless, the depth and breadth of research that went into the book is consistently amazing, in part because it flows so well. I don’t think I’ve read non-fiction this enjoyable in a couple years.
Be sure to stop by his website. Ross has audiofiles for The Rest Is Noise on his website, as well as a video introduction. If you’re looking for a great sample, there’s an excerpt from the chapter on Sibelius.