Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rest is Noise

by Alan Ross
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

This book is about 20th century classical music. You might think, as a result, that it has a potential reader base about as big as those who listen to such music, but you would be mistaken. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century encompasses so much more. One of the blurbs on the back uses the adjective "sprawling" to describe it, and I think it's truly the best word for it. From opera to minimalism, Strauss to Britten, a glimpse of Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin (particularly from the point of view of the musicians), Alan Ross includes much information that would interest a history buff, a music major, or anyone in between.

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.

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