The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pages, $30

Enter any concert hall, look at the program, and what do you see? Likely, an evening chock full of orchestral music that’s a) Austro-German and b) rooted in the 19th century.

In other words, the music ain’t new.

Most orchestras tend to avoid programming music composed after 1950, because the mere mention of the phrase “modern music” has been enough to spark debates over class, nationality, aesthetic philosophy, even race. For all that, however, the music of the 20th century remains deeply felt in popular song, Hollywood films, and mainstream dance music. It amounts to what Alex Ross in his landmark work of music history The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century calls “the cultural predicament of the composer.”

Ross tracks the composer’s decline from being privileged in fin de siècle Europe, when composers like Mahler and Strauss were celebrated like rock stars, to providing merely one more cultural option among many in a postmodern age following the advent of mass communication, the Depression, the Second World War, and America’s rise as a global superpower.

The Rest Is Noise is written with the same courtly, lyrical, and lucid style we’ve come to expect from the music critic of The New Yorker. But that’s not why Ross’ tome (more than 600 pages) is an important book, one of the best of the year. It’s important because of its principles of historiography. That is, it avoids what Ross calls the fallacy of “teleological tales.”

Standard music history texts, Ross reminds us, tend to be myopically focused on particular goals in music history and leave out ideas, issues, people, and events that don’t fit into the achievement of that goal. They are often two-dimensional, too, focusing on modes of composition rather than the socio-political context from which those modes sprung forth.

Case in point is Arnold Schoenberg, leader of the so-called Second Viennese School and champion of atonality, composition that values dissonance. Since the postwar era, music history textbooks parroted the same strain of musicological thought: that Schoenberg’s atonality, following in the wake of Wagner’s protracted harmonies, was a historical inevitability.

Ross examines such topics as La Belle Epoque, the Weimar Republic, the terror of Stalin, Hitler’s genocide, the rise of the American military-industrial complex, the Civil Rights Movement, the Velvet Underground, Reaganomics, and more. By doing so, Ross reveals no predetermined path for music. Schoenberg’s atonality, given the sensibility of composers today and the new socio-economic realities of globalization, now seems a dead end.

“Teleological tales” like Soundings: Music of the Twentieth Century, a standard text in many American music conservatories, seem fueled by ideology: Schoenberg, atonality, and high modernism, which made all the arts more “difficult” and “impenetrable,” look like a bulwark against Communism for much of the century and a tool in the détente conflicts of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, composers like Jean Sibelius got the short shrift. In Soundings, he isn’t even mentioned. As a corrective, Ross devotes an entire chapter to the troubled Finnish composer. Though acclaimed in his lifetime, Sibelius was marginalized for being a “nationalist” composer, implying that his music lacked universal appeal. Ironically, Sibelius influenced contemporary living composers — such as John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Magnus Lindberg — more than Schoenberg has.

In choosing to eschew “teleological tales,” Ross is faced with a complicated task of organizing a giant mass of styles, ideas, and personalities. Fortunately, this is no plodding history. The Rest Is Noise is a fascinating, and even gripping, story of a complex century in thrall to the politics of style, in which every new development was a reaction to previous developments. In Ross’s able hands, though, classical music carries on as a vibrant tradition whose future is yet to be written rather than a dying art whose beauty must be idolized and preserved.