When most people think about classical composition, they think of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and other old composers. However, even in the 20th century, classical composition is alive and well. Rather than looking at classical music as a time period, it is more akin to a style of composing. The 20th century has been filled with fascinating classical compositions by huge personalities that deliberate tried to bend and break the rules of composition. As history marched on, the composers of our era were at the mercy of dictators, world calamities and shifting social trends. Out of all the periods of classical composition, the 20th century was the most complex and interesting. Music critic Alex Ross spent years researching the history of these 20th century composers and his research paid off with the wonderful book The Rest is Noise.
This is another book that I found by looking at the reading lists of members of Radiohead. I think that this recommendation came from Colin Greenwood. The Rest is Noise is mainly a history book, charting the careers of many of the 20th century composers, ranging from early innovators like Schoenberg and Stravinsky to modern minimalists such as La Monte Young and Phillip Glass. Throughout the book, Ross makes an effort to show the cultural and historical events that cause the composers to write. Ross also spends the time to describe the pieces that he is writing about and gives the reader a musical breakdown of the pieces. A lot of the book spends time discussing why a composer such as Schoenberg was innovative and why his music sounds the way it does. I was really impressed by these parts, because I was able to better appreciate a lot of classical pieces that I enjoyed. I was able to understand why they had such a distinctive sound and why they were innovative. Ross does need a bit of outside study. I had to brush up on my musical theory to better understand why he was talking about, but that knowledge is not absolutely necessary to understanding the book. You can get by without it, but putting in a little work outside of The Rest is Noise really helps the reader understand what Ross is talking about.
The history portions of the book were superb. Ross not only gives a good overview of the history of music but also a good overview of 20th century history. It was really fascinating to read about some of the untold stories that occurred during historical events, such as Richard Strauss’s actions in Nazi Germany or Shostakovich’s problems in the Soviet Union. I was really able to understand why modern composers wrote the way that they did and what trials they went through for their music. Often times, it is hard to understand what they composers are going through when listening to classical music. We have been trained to listen to pop music were the singer tells us what he or she is thinking. Instrumental music can be a little tougher. Alex Ross does an excellent job helping the reader hear between the notes of the music and understand what the music actually means.
I also enjoyed the sheer amount of music that Alex Ross discusses. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of classical composition and I was really thrilled to get some new pieces to listen to. I was especially happy to get a lot of recommendations for listening to post-war avant-garde music. That is such an odd genre to get into, and Ross does job discussing how it came about and what music to listen to if one was interested in that period. In The Rest is Noise, Ross goes beyond the normal “textbook” pieces and really gets into some obscure stuff, and I was happy to discover some new avant-garde pieces that I have never heard before (even if I am still trying to figure out what they actually mean.) Even though Ross is very knowledgeable about music, his writing never felt pretentious. He even spent the time to discuss popular music, with sections devoted to The Velvet Underground and shout-outs to The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead and Sonic Youth. I was really glad to see that Ross was open-minded enough to recognize other genres as being great music.
I would highly recommend The Rest is Noise. For people interested in classical music, it is a must read. Your knowledge and understanding of 20th century classical music will be broadened and become more complex. This is also a great book for people who just have a passing interest in that genre and want to gain more than just a passing understanding of classical composition. This is a great book.