Books The Rest is NoiseAfter you have read The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross you will never hear concert hall music the same way again, and likely not jazz, musicals nor many film scores.  A bit on the long side [694 pp], the book is the most unanticipated, and welcome, education I’ve had in a long time.

“Twentieth-century classical composition, the subject of this book, sounds like noise to many,” he begins.  I’ve been one of those many.  No more.  Or let me put it this way, much less is noise to me now and much more, I now understand, is not noise to others.

“I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise,” Ross quotes George Gershwin as saying when explaining the origins of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Ross is the long time music critic for the New Yorker.  He has put into this book decades of thoughtful listening combined with good proportions of the musical, social and political history of a century.  Mini biographies of composers are tied to their compositions, their loves, their enemies, their politics and to other artists and writers of their time. Not only that, but we learn a great deal about the architecture of music, how it is talked about by those who create it and play it, and how to grow our own listening intelligence.

The preface contains an excellent summary of what we will find.

“The Rest Is Noise chronicles not only the artists themselves but also the politicians, dictators, millionaire patrons, and CEOs who tried to control what music was written; the intellectuals who attempted to adjudicate style; the writers, painters, dancers, and filmmakers who provided companionship on lonely roads of exploration; the audiences who variously reveled in, reviled, or ignored what composers were doing; the technologies that changed how music was made and heard; and the revolutions, hot and cold wars, waves of emigration, and deeper social transformations that reshaped the landscape in which composers worked.”

Ross’s reach includes cuneiform references from the Babylonian city of Ur to “clear” and “unclear” combinations of notes, to Hitler’s and Stalin’s opinions of music, to atonalism in rock’s Velvet Underground and Stockhausen’s influence on the Beatles, to today’s minimalists.  For all the detail, he does a superb job of helping us organize it around building blocks time, musical tendencies and schools, and several dozen major composers, most of whom appear in several sections, as in the years.  Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg in Europe, Joplin, Ives, Copeland, Gershwin and Ellington  in the US.  Antonín Dvořák, of Hungary makes a surprise appearance as an early fan of African-American music, writing about it and taking on young composers.   Sibelius in Finland gets substantial attention as does an interesting section on music in the ill-fated Wiemar Republic.  Dimitri Shostakovich, his music and his always dangerous relation to Stalin along with this contemporary Prokofiev is introduced. Benjamin Britten in Britain, Messiaen in France and John Cage in the U.S. add to, and stir, the might musical pot.

Writers make cameos in relation to composers.  Debussy was much influenced by and used verses from Baudelaire and Verlaine. Thomas Mann knew Stravinsky and Schoenberg and wrote a fictionalized life of a composer with Faustian complusions, with the help of the musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno.  Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, W.E.B.Dubois   and Jean Cocteau all make appearances.


As the 19th century began to wane, Vienna was the simmering center of all “classical” music. Admiration, misunderstanding and rivalry between “the titans of German-Austro music,” Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Berg crossed and entwined.  Generous sections on Strauss and Mahler in pre WW I Vienna  give us biography not only of connections and years of writing music but of interior conflict, doubt and pride as found in letters, to and from their intimates.

“I extend to [Strauss] respectful and friendly solicitude,” Mahler wrote to his wife on one occasion, “and he doesn’t respond, he doesn’t even seem to notice, it is wasted on him. When I experience such things again and again, I feel totally confused about myself and the world!”

It is fascinating to learn that both Puccini and Mahler, as well as Schoenberg and the youthful Alban Berg, were in attendance at an early, 1906 performance of Richard Strauss’ groundbreaking, as well as scadanalous opera, Salome.  Adolf Hitler later claimed he too was there, at the age of seventeen.

Later events, of equal personal tension, are revealed.

At the premier of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” February, 1924, at which the 26 year old composer played the piano along with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

In the audience at Aeolian Hall were such classical celebrities as Stokowski, Leopold Godowsky, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, and Rachmaninov himself.

“When the last chord sounded,” Ross tells us, “delirium ensued.”  Even that praise didn’t wash away Gershwin’s modesty.  Four years later, in Vienna, he stopped by to pay respects to Alban Berg whose “sublimely dark opera” Wozzek, had rattled the European music world three years earlier.  After hearing his newest piece, “Lyric Suites,” Gershwin felt quite abashed at playing something for his host.  He only proceeded after being assured by Berg, “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.”

Even those we might think of as the old bulls of classical music were young once, too.

Stravinsky’s moment of high anxiety arrived when he performed his Piano Sonata at the 1925 ISCM festival in Venice. Janáček was there; so, too, were Diaghilev, Honegger, the Princesse de Polignac, Cole Porter, Arturo Toscanini, and Schoenberg, with his red gaze.

With his newly found neo-classical style, many regarded him as being a back-slider; Schoenberg is reported to having walked out — which couldn’t have been as bad as the full scale riot in Paris when The Rite of Spring premiered, May 29, 1913.


Technology then, as now, transformed how people listened, and to what.  The early recording cylinders and later radio and cinema carried music to people who had never heard it, including to musicians themselves.  The arrival and excitement in Paris over early American jazz was almost completely due to such “disruptive technology.”  Not only that, but since the sound reproduction was better for small ensembles than for large orchestras, the the former grew in popularity.

The enormous disruptions of war, are given a fair look, as well.  Just as World War I gave explosive growth to earlier disruptive tendencies in literature and other forms of individualism, so too to music. Non traditional harmonies and structures, already surfacing in Debussy, Liszt and Satie, became for many the only possible musical response to the romanticism of earlier, less disrupted decades. Of course, opinion was hurled from all sides.

Schoenberg fell into the grip of what he would later call his “war psychosis,” drawing comparisons between the German army’s assault on decadent France and his own assault on decadent bourgeois values. In a letter to Alma Mahler dated August 1914, Schoenberg waxed militant in his zeal for the German cause, denouncing in the same breath the music of Bizet, Stravinsky, and Ravel. “Now comes the reckoning!” Schoenberg thundered. “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.”

His fellow German, Ricard Strauss, had a contrary view.

“It is sickening,” he wrote a few months later to Hofmannsthal, “to read in the papers of the regeneration of German art … to read how the youth of Germany is to emerge cleansed and purified from this ‘glorious’ war, when in fact one must be thankful if the poor blighters are at least cleansed of their lice and bed-bugs and cured of their infections and once more weaned from murder!”

The already famous Thomas Mann, wrote in November 1914. “War! We felt purified, liberated, we felt an enormous hope.”

Strauss and Mann reversed their views as the Second World War came on.

Not only do I learn what certain composers were doing during the First World War, I learn how their music responded.  Not only do I learn about George Gershwin and his cohort of Russian-Jewish emigres in Brooklyn but how to hear African-American music in their melodies and rhythms.  Scott Joplin now jumps right out of the syncopations in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for example.

The Roosevelt years bought on the New Deal in economics and labor relations and in the arts as well.  Aaron Copeland benefited; his famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” was inspired by a Vice-President Henry Wallace’ speech.


Common Man, Appalachian Spring

Copeland, and other musicians were later red-baited, and the federal arts program shut down.  I was surprised to learn that Virgil Thomson, whom I had thought was a music scholar, was first a composer.  He contributed “The Plow that Breaks the Plains, ” a score for a WPA film about the dust  bowl — both of which can be found on-line.

A major revelation to me was how modern music, following WW II, became part of the cold war, that the U.S. Army in Germany had directives for what to encourage people to listen to.  A unit called Information Control had musical branches,

…for the promotion of jazz, American composition, international contemporary music, and other sounds that could be used to degrade the concept of Aryan cultural supremacy.

Leonard Bernstein’s unexpectedly applauded appearance in Munich in 1948 had even Germans shaking their heads, exclaiming,

… that this young American knew German music better than the Germans. In a letter home Bernstein exulted: “It means so much for the American military Government, since music is the Germans’ last stand in their ‘master race’ claim, and for the first time it’s been exploded in Munich.”

American Bebop of the 40s and 50s, much favored by Jack Kerouac and the Beats among others, explored the same atonalities Schoenberg was pushing to the fore; Charlie Parker knew Stravinsky by sight and quoted bits of “Firebird” in his own riffs.

Nice little cultural asides make real for us, descriptions of a past age

Sophisticated youths memorized [Wagner’s] librettos [in 1906] as American college students of a later age would recite Bob Dylan.

Bo Diddly, the Beatles and David Bowie and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead all are mentioned in the swirl of names and styles of the radical sixties.

Much of the history and biography has been set forth by others, and Ross has read it voluminously, referring to title and author generously in his pages.  His selections, and ordering and contextualizing give us the benefit of his deep and wide knowldge. If you want to go further, pages of notes at the back lead you to source materials, enough for several years!  While I might have gotten a sense of personality and history by taking on such reading myself,  the knowledge of music he shares, tied to composition and time, to composer, his mentors and students is completely new.  Like learning a new language, that below the surface of emphasis and rhythm, and tone, there is structure and meaning, or a flight from meaning.  There signs and referents, in this case in English, to what we are hearing.

Thus we have, from basic physics and naming conventions:

If you pluck a string tuned to a low C, then pluck it again while pinching it in half, the tone rises to the next C above. This is the interval of the octave. Further subdivisions yield intervals of the fifth (C to G), the fourth (G to the next higher C), and the major third (C to E). These are the lower steps of the natural harmonic series, or overtone series, which shimmers like a rainbow from any vibrating string.

Generous summaries of various pieces of music, make us aware of multiple point of reference; as in looking at a painting, from the subject matter, to the frame and what is included and excluded, to the brightness or modesty of color, how colors play against each other, to the line of brush stroke and thickness of paint there is much to notice. So in music.

The first notes on the clarinet [in Strauss’ Salome] are simply a rising scale, [similar to that which Gershwin made famous later in the opening to Rhapsody in Blue] but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one half-step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil. In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet.


The moon, obeying his command, goes behind the clouds. An extraordinary sound emanates from the lower brass and winds: the opera’s introductory motif is telescoped— with one half-step alteration— into a single glowering chord.

I didn’t know people thought about music in such a way.  Perhaps its a commonplace among the musically knowledgeable but for me it was a revelation, and a welcome one.  I braved a performance of Alban Berg’s opera, Lulu the other day as a direct result.  On the hand I was not penetrated by a new light of understanding but neither did I walk out in a funk of bafflement. I could re-visit it, in parts, try to hear what others hear with an gradually more knowledgeable musical mind.


The Rest is Noise is so layered and dense with information it may be intimidating to some, even those who want to take it in.  I have several suggestions: one,  the reader for the Audible version, Grover Gardner, is excellent.  Listening to half-hour segments or so on a long trip would be excellent cranial exercise.  Two, read it in thirds, as Ross has divided it, laying it down between sections to immerse yourself in the music just covered.  Three, it is also an excellent reference book.  Read it or not from cover to cover, then use it before going to concerts with modern offerings, from Mahler on, or after hearing interesting pieces on the radio, or even the movies.  Check the index and see what you find. Four, even better, read slowly and with music.  He has created a web-site with exemplary snips for many of the chapters as well as a “Suggested Listening and Reading,” chapter at the end.  You can do even better if you get hooked.  When reading about Ravel, for example, use one of the many on-line streaming sites and listen — as I am now — to “La Valse,” (Bernstein and full orchestra or Glenn Gould, single piano) about which Ross provides interesting short commentary.  Or, find performances of Berg’s Lulu on YouTube or Terry Riley’s  Persian Surgery Dervishes (1972).  Go way out to Barstow, California and listen to Harry Partch.

Anyway you do it, new worlds will open to you.

For chapter titles  Continue reading »

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