Finding a book that lives up to expectations and ecstatic reviews is too rare, as many books don’t. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an exception, telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.
Many of his Ross’s descriptions about musical culture could as much be about literature as music; in Weimar Republic of Germany, he writes: “every violent act or image seems to foreshadow the catastrophe to come. But it is too easy to write the story of German culture from 1918 to 1933 as the prelude to the next chapter.” Elsewhere, the same point is made about modernism, about audience acceptance, about difficulty, and about politics. One point in particular can be said about literature, and it’s a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno: “[…] modernism can bring forth its own kind of kitsch—a melodrama of difficulty that easily degenerates into a sort of superannuated adolescent angst.” That’s especially true if you can stretch modernistic tendencies of the ones Adorno describes out to today, as A Reader’s Manifesto attacks exactly this idea.
The critical acclaim I mentioned is real: see, for example, Steven Johnson and Maud Newton’s excerpt. I think The Rest is Noise inspires praise because it is learned but not pedantic, historical but not dull, even-handed in its descriptions of musical stylistic and political warfare, and, above all devoted to music itself, rather than to numbing ideology. In an early section, Ross writes about Richard Strauss’ Guntram, the hero who, at the end of the opera, leaves his order, his beloved, and “the Christian God.” Strauss’ mentor was alarmed, but Ross describes why Strauss wrote the opera as he did: “Guntram’s order […] had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art. This was Wagner’s mission, too, but for Strauss it was a utopian scheme that contained ‘the seeds of death in itself.'” The theme of extremes goes on toward the middle of the book, when composers accused each other of fascist tendencies in each others’ music, and by the end Ross shows examples of modern critics who berate pop or classical music for pop’s supposed emptiness or classical’s supposed beauty. But if Ross has a main thesis it is that music is music, regardless of labels or dogma.
Throughout The Rest is Noise, Ross almost shudders at the divisiveness in all its manifestations, from the beginning when he writes that “Fin-de-siecle Vienna offers the depressing spectacle of artists and audiences washing their hands of each other, giving up on the dream of common ground,” to the masterful first sentence of the epilogue, “Extremes become their opposites in time.” Instead Ross unifies common themes and idea while still being able to judge, making a strong case that in music, as with all art, ceaseless miscegenation strengthens rather than weakening the end product.
EDIT: Alex Ross visited Seattle, which I wrote about here.