NBCC Awards Finalists in Criticism: Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise”


This is the twenty-fifth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Alex Ross, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” FSG

About “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker magazine writes,

“Twentieth-century classical composition, the subject of this book, sounds like noise to many. It is a largely untamed art, an unassimilated underground. While the spattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more, and while experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms across the land, the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little perceptible impact on the outside world. Classical music is stereotyped as an art of the dead, a repertory that begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini. People are sometimes surprised to learn that composers are still writing at all.”

Ross’ project is to provide a lens through which readers can view the vast expanse of the classical music terrain of the 20th century. Rather than academically tracking music only, moving from composer to composer and school of thought to school of thought, Ross approaches the music of the 20th century from a wide variety of vantage points—history, film, literature, politics, personalities, biography, musicology, and his own undisguised and unmistakeable personal attitudes.

Where for a casual observer only the most banal of sweeping generalizations could sum up the movement from Stravinsky to Snoop Dogg, Ross renders the progression of a chaotic century’s music cohesively and with panache. Cram-packed with details and information as the book is (to some readers “The Rest is Noise” might seem a bit frantic, perhaps even noisy), Ross handles the vast amount of material adroitly and with commanding authority, weaving so many things together at the same time that occasionally a reader might forget the book is about music, riding through the past century on a roller-coaster of information. The effect is vertiginous and intoxicating, musical chapters and themes woven together into a rolling score of detail and language. By the book’s end, readers will not only have the fundamentals of an education in 20th century classical music appreciation, but they’ll have acquired an understanding of history and politics from the uncommon perspective of music.—NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson. Williamson’s “Oakland, Jack London and Me,” is due out in April.

Review in the Washington Post.

Review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Excerpt in the Denver Post.

Interview on NPR.