The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By ALEX ROSS

Just as living air-conditioned lives has led us to be simultaneously both less aware and more sensitive to the constant invention of the weather, so has our by now complete immersion in a world of recorded sound altered our perception of the power of music. Certainly when it comes to classical composition, our listening is, generally speaking, less rapt and more impatient; the commodifying of opera, symphony, string quartet, and even the most innovative compositional forms into so many CDs has stripped them of their sense of larger destiny as cultural and historical meaning distilled into fleeting moments of experience in the life of the listener. In this rich, stimulating, and thoroughly satisfying book, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross restores that sense of destiny by “listening to the twentieth century,” leading us from a 1906 performance of Strauss’ Salome (conducted by the composer and attended by Puccini, Mahler, and Schoenberg) to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Attuned to the way musical meaning, though “vague, mutable, and, in the end, deeply personal,” can underscore and even echo the movements of history, Ross puts his agile intelligence, eclectic ear, and superb critical skills to use in enriching our experience of — or, better yet, introducing us to — the works of composers as varied as Stravinsky and Sibelius, Britten and Xenakis. Combining his enviable erudition with a gift for fashioning compelling narrative paths through thorny but exhilarating aesthetic and intellectual terrain, peopled with maverick minds and compelling personalities, Ross has written a fascinating, even exciting book, one that will inform a lifetime’s listening. -