One of the Christmas gifts my wife gave me was a book by Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise. After finally finishing the Jim Butcher book she also gave me, I just started digging in to Ross’ book. Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. Prior to that, Ross wrote for the New York Times. The book is a cultural history of classical music focusing on the twentieth century. Here is a brief summary from The Art of Noise website/blog:
The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.
Twentieth century Classical music is complex, fragmented, and misunderstood. After completing the first chapter, I am enthralled by this book thus far. The narrative is incredibly well written, and accessible to everyone. Thinking about many of the music history books I was forced to read while completing my music degrees, I wish they had all been as interesting and well written. I may have gained an appreciation for 20th century music sooner than I did.
It took me a long time to begin to appreciate many of the twentieth century composers. In particular, I have a hard time appreciating atonal and twelve tone music from composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Elliot Carter. Truthfully, I still struggle with some of it. There are just some composers I don’t think I will ever understand. What I hope to gain after finishing this book is a greater understanding of what musicians endured during a time I can’t completely fathom giving me greater insight about their compositional style. I also think after reading this book, I might listen to some of these pieces differently.
I rarely give recommendations, but if you are looking for a good read, this is a good one. Plus, I am getting more ideas about what to write about in the future.