The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

July 17th, 2008 at 4:50 pm

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

As a recovering Band Nerd, I assumed that this book, subtitled “Listening to The Twentieth Century,” would be an enjoyable companion to my amateur musical education. I have had the privilege of performing hundreds of renowned musical compositions, from Gershwin to Hindemith, and even conducted several hundred marching musicians playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Attending grade school in Connecticut, I can even remember a relative of Charles Ives visiting our music class and telling us disinterested ankle-biters about her famous composer-relative.

But alas, The Rest is Noise is a book about classical music.

A book. About classical music.

It’s a bit like macramé about kite flying. That is, an obscure, archaic, and largely ignored medium conveying a rather dismissed subject. A quilt about baking contests? Stained glass about some dead dude on a cross? An election to decide world leaders?

Ross does acknowledge that, “Classical music is widely mocked as a stuck-up, sissified, intrinsically un-American pursuit.”

Though critically acclaimed, well enough written, and well researched (the result of 15 years of being a music critic), I found The Rest Is Noise to be rather dull, a bit boring, and overall, a lot of work to read. It’s 543 pages of, “…for example, in The Anaemic Rag chains of thirds unwind over an open-fifth ostinato.” And that’s an example, which is supposed to be an instance serving illustration, but I had no idea what an ostinato was and Word spell check wants ostinato to be “obstinate,” even though ostinato is simply a constantly recurring melodic fragment.

Ross absolutely excels at bringing the music he is talking about to life with evocative and stirring descriptions, but I found myself pleading to just listen to the music itself. I can only hope that they will publish an edition with a supplementary CD so a reader can pause and listen to samples of this music that seems to matter so much. Does the audio edition already have some of the music playing with it? I can only imagine that such an endeavor would be a lawyer’s nightmare with the endless rights and clearances and royalties. (The same problem is why The Wonder Years is not on DVD. All that damn music.)

While the historical context portrayed by The Rest is Noise is enlightening and the composer’s lives that are detailed therein are only mildly interesting, it is the music and the music alone that emerges as worthwhile. So in that, Alex Ross, as a critic, has achieved something great with this book. It makes me want to actually listen to some of this music he talks so damn much about.

Though classical music seems to have been quite full of homosexuals and drugs. Take that Rock and Roll!

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