Alex Ross' the Rest is Noise

Alex Ross' the Rest is Noise

Classical music isn’t a topic that many folks under the age of forty are even remotely engaged with. Even if music history is something of an infatuation, stuff post-1910 is usually where research – that term’s used really broadly here – begins. It’s not that there aren’t worthwhile things to investigate before that period of time, but everyone pretty quickly becomes a human antique, somewhat detached from modern concerns.

There’s also the problem of writing or reading like music – it’s supposed to be like dancing about architecture. Even if that wasn’t the case, reading theory, regardless of one’s musical inclinations, doesn’t always seem like a good way to relax. Luckily, though, The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross has taken (most) of the boring stuff out of modern classical music and turned in a work that’s more historical than theoretical.

The Rest Is Noise and all of its five hundred pages probably seems like an endeavor too sprawling to tackle without some great knowledge on the subject of classical music. Going into it, though, all I knew is that Bach was kinda cool and Satie was a weird dude.

Ross’ strength, though, is intertwining some dense technical description with a broad historical narrative. Of course, at some points reading what key some composition is in and then how it moves to some other chord isn’t all that interesting, but portions of that nature don’t generally last too long.

Instead, The Rest is Noise reads like a laid back history book concentrating on not just the big names in classical music, but the folks who would ostensibly define the music during the earliest moments of the twentieth century.

Reading about the back and forth between lauding folk musics of different varieties and then finding out that atonality wound up being the order of the day for a bit is endlessly fascinating in and of itself. But beyond that, combining his broad musical knowledge with his taste for politics, Ross includes a deft detour through Stalin-era Russia and Nazi Germany.

No one’s all good or all bad – as hard as that is to stomach after naming two the most successful mass murderers in human history – so it’s engaging to read about how Stalin eviscerated composers he felt didn’t work towards to cause. And even more interesting is how Hitler kinda like some Jewish composers. But there’s a great deal more. It’s a cultural study to a certain extent regarding what was acceptable and how the media relayed it all to the fan(atics) of the era.