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


NBCC board member and former Balakian award winner Maureen N. McLane announced the winner of the 2007 NBCC award in criticism on Thursday, March 6, with these remarks:

It has been said that the 20th C. was a terrible time to be living but a very good time for thinking.  It might also be said that the 20th C. was a complicated time for composing.  The composer Ned Rorem some years ago declared, “The world is divided into two aesthetic styles: French and German.  The color red is German; the color blue is French.  Men are German; women are French.”  Some, like Rorem, divide 20th C. classical composition into French and German schools; others have found that two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one called tonality, the other atonality.

To tell the story of 20th C. classical composition is an act of enormous ambition, some would say hubris.  But the gods have not struck down Alex Ross; their deputies, the muses, clearly inspired and sustained him throughout the making of his book, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” (FSG).

Ross offers us a cultural history of and through music; he charts the sonic landscape of the last century, from the “death shriek” of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” to the sublime radiance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”  Ushering us from Vienna to Hollywood to downtown scenes in New York, from Benjamin Britten to Björk, Ross opens our minds and our ears, avoiding the pitfalls of polemic without skirting the musical controversies of the past century.

Neither an elegy nor a celebration, Ross’s book is a resonant meditation on 20th C. classical music, its many streams, its makers, its complex situation in Europe, the Americas, and beyond.  As Ross observes, “Classical music is stereotyped as an art of the dead.”  In his beautiful, elegant, erudite book, Ross shows those announcements of the death of classical music to be extremely premature.

The NBCC is delighted to award Alex Ross its 2007 Award in Criticism for “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.”—Maureen N. McLane

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley